The Story

Traditions of East and West Gather at the River

A widow has gone mad because her young son has disappeared. Searching for him, she boards a ferry, and the boatman explains that crowds are gathering at its destination in hopes that the spirit of a kidnapped boy who died there will work miracles. Hearing details about the dead child, the woman realizes that he must have been her vanished son. Joining in the prayers at his grave, she hears a voice and recognizes it as his, and his spirit appears, restoring her sanity.

– Lindsley Cameron, New York Times


The work is based on the Japanese noh play Sumidagawa (Sumida River) of Juro Motomasa (1395–1431).

A mad woman from Kyôto has been wandering the country in search of her young son who was stolen by a slave trader. On the banks of the Sumida River in Edo (present Tôkyô), she meets a ferry boatman. When she questions him about the name of the white birds flying over the river, he tells her that they are miyakodori, and quotes an ancient poem in which it is also called "bird of the capital". The poetic name of the bird reminds the woman of home, making her homesick.

The boatman agrees to take her across the river and during the trip, she questions him about the crowd gathered near a small mound on the opposite bank. He explains that during the spring of the previous year, a boy was abandoned by a slave-trader and died there. The mound is his grave, and the people are holding a memorial service in honor of the first anniversary of his death. Before the boy died, he revealed that his family name was Yoshida and that he was from Kyôto.

The woman realizes that it is the grave of her lost son, and she bursts into tears.

The boatman comforts her, and together they pray for the repose of the boy's soul. In her grief, the mother imagines that she hears her son's voice calling out to her from the grave, but it is only the cry of the plover flying overhead announcing the coming of dawn. Then she thinks that she has caught a glimpse of him among the willow trees on the bank of the river, but it is only the shifting shadows of the trailing willow branches. All her illusions are shattered in the light of the rising sun.


This Parable for Church Performance (Op. 71) is the first of three Church Parables by Benjamin Britten. The work is based on the Sumidagawa, which Britten saw during a visit to Japan and the Far East in early 1956. Beyond the noh source dramatic material, Britten incorporated elements of noh treatment of theatrical time into this composition. The libretto is by William Plomer, who translated the setting of the original into a Christian parable, set in early medieval times near the fictional Curlew River, in the fenlands of East Anglia. The action centres on the Madwoman.

The story is told through four main characters who, in the style of Noh theatre, are all performed by male singers: the Abbot (a bass, who acts as a narrator), the Madwoman (tenor), the Ferryman (baritone) and the Traveller (baritone). A chorus is provided by eight Pilgrims (three tenors, three baritones and two basses).

Curlew River opens with a processional, to the hymn Te lucis ante terminum (To Thee before the close of day), in which all performers, including the musicians, walk to the performance area and take their places. At a cue from the organ, the Abbot introduces the "mystery" to be presented. An unhurried robing ceremony - to stately instrumental accompaniment - follows, after which the play commences.

The Madwoman and Traveller wish to cross the Curlew River on the Ferryman's boat. After briefly introducing themselves, the Madwoman explains her quest: she is searching for her child who has been missing for a year. Though the Ferryman is initially reluctant to carry the Madwoman, the other characters take pity on her and persuade the Ferryman to give her passage. As he is carrying the Madwoman and the Traveller across the river, he tells the story of a boy who, one year ago, arrived in the area with a cruel master who kidnapped him from his home near the Black Mountains (which is where the Madwoman is from). The boy was sick, and was left by the river by his master. Though the boy was looked after by the local people, he died. The Ferryman recounts the boy's words:

I know I am dying... Please bury me here, by the path to this chapel. Then, if travellers from my dear country pass this way, their shadows will fall on my grave, and plant a yew tree in memory of me.

The Ferryman adds, The river people believe that the boy's grave is sacred, that... some special grace is there, to heal the sick in body and in soul

It becomes clear that the boy who died one year ago is the child of the Madwoman. Grief-stricken by this knowledge, she joins the rest of the cast in praying at the boy's graveside. At the climactic moment when all the men are chanting together, the voice of the boy is heard echoing them, and his spirit appears above the tomb to reassure his mother:

Go your way in peace, mother. The dead shall rise again, And in that blessed day, We shall meet in heav'n

At this point, the Madwoman is redeemed and her madness lifts. Britten depicts the moment with the Madwoman letting out a joyful, melismatic "Amen", the final note of which resolves onto a long-delayed unison with the full cast - a signal of return and acceptance.

The robing ceremony music returns, and the players resume their normal dress. The Abbot reiterates the moral and bids the audience farewell. The full cast then recess to the same plainsong with which the work began.