Composers Datebook®

A ghost story by Henry James and Benjamin Britten

Composer's Datebook - September 14, 2022


Do you enjoy a good ghost story? The American novelist Henry James did, but liked to give the ones he wrote an extra twist – another “turn of the screw” you might say. In fact, one of his classic ghost stories from 1898 is titled just that: “The Turn of the Screw.”

In it, a young British governess is entrusted with the care of two orphaned children, who may – or may not – have been abused by their previous governess and her lover, both now dead, who may – or may not – have returned as ghosts to continue their torment of the children. The manner in which Henry James tells the story leaves open the question whether the ghosts are real or just figments of the young governess’s lurid imagination.

“The Turn of the Screw” has been adapted for both stage and screen, and, on today’s date in 1954, an operatic version by the British composer Benjamin Britten received its premiere performance at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Each of the 16 scenes in Britten’s chamber opera is preceded by a variation on a ghostly 12-note theme, a “tone row” in the style of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and since we see and hear the ghosts on stage, it’s pretty clear Britten is suggesting the ghosts and the evil in the tale are disturbingly real.

Music Played in Today's Program

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) –The Turn of the Screw (Sir Peter Pears, tenor; English Opera Group, Benjamin Britten, cond.) London/Decca 4256722

On This Day


  • 1737 - Austrian composer Johann Michael Haydn, in Rohrau; He was the younger brother of Franz Joseph Haydn (b. 1732);

  • 1760 - Italian composer Luigi Cherubini, in Florence (although August 14 is occasionally cited as his birthdate);

  • 1910 - American composer and eminent theatrical conductor Lehman Engel, in Jackson, Miss.;

  • 1910 - Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann, in Zurich;


  • 1854 - Bruckner: Mass in Bb ("Missa Solemnis") in St. Florian, Austria;

  • 1952 - Frank Martin: Concerto for Harpsichord, in Venice;

  • 1954 - Britten: opera "The Turn of the Screw," in Venice at the Teatro La Fenice;

  • 1968 - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 12, in Moscow, by the Beethoven Quartet;

  • 1978 - Barber: Third Essay for Orchestra, by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta;

  • 1994 - Richard Danielpour: Cello Concerto, commissioned and performed by San Francisco Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, with soloist Yo-Yo Ma;

  • 1996 - Stockhausen: "Freitag aus Licht" (Friday from Light), at the Leipzig Opera;

  • 1997 - Saariaho: "Graal Théâtre" (chamber version), in Helsinki, by the Avanti Ensemble and violinist John Storgards.

  • 2002 - David Amram: Flute Concerto ("Giants of the Night"), in New Orleans by the Louisiana Philharmonic conducted by Klauspeter Seibel, with James Galway the soloist;

  • 2002 - Colin Matthews, Judith Weir, Poul Ruders, David Sower, Michael Torke, Anthony Payne, and Magnus Linberg: "Bright Cecilia: Variations on a Theme by Purcell," at Royal Albert Hall in London, with the BBC Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting; This set of orchestral variations on a Purcell theme was commissioned by BBC Music magazine to celebrate its 10th anniversary;


  • 1731 - J.S. Bach performs organ recitals in Dresden on Sept. 14-21;

  • 1741 - Handel finishes scoring his famous oratorio, "Messiah," begun on August 22 (The entire work was composed in a period of 24 days); These dates are according to the Julian "Old Style" calendar (Gregorian dates: Sept 2 to Sept. 25);

  • 1914 - W. C. Handy copyrights his most famous song, "The St. Louis Blues";

  • 1973 - The Philadelphia Orchestra gives a concert in Beijing, the first American orchestra to perform in Red China; Eugene Ormandy conducts symphonies by Mozart (No. 35), Brahms (No. 1) and the American composer Roy Harris (No. 3).

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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