[New Yorker, 27 March 2006]
In July, 1945, Benjamin Britten accompanied the violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a brief tour of defeated Germany. One day, the two men visited the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and performed works by Mozart and others for a silent but intent crowd of former inmates. Stupefied by what he had seen, Britten went home to the East Anglian coast and set to music the most spiritually scouring poetry that he could findóthe Holy Sonnets of John Donne. He composed nine songs at feverish speed, beginning, on August 2nd, with ìOh my blacke Soule!,î and ending, on August 19th, with ìDeath be not proud.î While he wrote, Death had more to celebrate: several hundred thousand people were vaporized by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan. On August 6th, the day of Hiroshima, Britten set Sonnet XIV, which begins, ìBatter my heart, three-personíd God.î There was an eerie coincidence at work here, for Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the American nuclear program, was spellbound by the same poem, and had it in mind when he named the site of the first atomic test Trinity.
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