Death Be Not Proud: The Darkness of Benjamin Britten as told through “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne”

Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Katharina Uhde


Arts and Sciences



Presentation Type

Poster Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-28-2022


My research is about Benjamin Britten’s “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne” (1945). This piece was composed after Britten's American exile. On his return he visited a recently liberated concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, which inspired this dark and somber setting. James Gilchrist (2912) writes that Donne's poetry -- which "deals with the struggle to make sense of human sexuality and fallibility in a world dominated by inhuman doctrine and hierarchy" -- resonated deeply with Britten. While the work has enjoyed a rich reception history, certain questions still remain only partially answered, for example, whether Britten's expression of dignity, grandeur and the "elegiac" quality in "Death be not proud" have any autobiographical layers, given that this seemingly victorious soundscape conflicts with and challenges the topic of darkness of the cycle and of the poem's title. This research focuses on "Death be not proud" -- set over a ground bass theme of five measures -- and investigates how the use of a passacaglia, one of Britten's favorite musical forms, and an aesthetic that "defies death" (Graham Johnson, 2017) all come together, revealing a nuanced confrontation with the horrors of WWII concentration camps and with his own darkness.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Joshua DeJarlais is a senior music education major from Dyer, Indiana. His interest in this topic stems from his own performance of the piece “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne”, scored for tenor voice and piano. He seeks to analyze composer Benjamin Britten due to his mysterious nature and status as one of the few known homosexual composers in the musical canon.

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