Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, one of the most psychologically potent operas in the repertory, opens at the Met on Feb. 28, in a new production by John Doyle; an HD simulcast follows on March 15. The Met blog is supplying various perspectives; this post, with commentary by the company's wonder-working chorus master, Donald Palumbo, whets the appetite. Peter G. Davis has written an incisive preview for the Times. Here, to add to the verbiage, is an excerpt from the Britten chapter of my book:
Aldeburgh is a windswept fishing town on the east coast of the British Isles. “A bleak little place; not beautiful," the novelist E. M. Forster called it. He went on: "It huddles around a flint-towered church and sprawls down to the North Sea — and what a wallop the sea makes as it pounds the shingle! Near by is a quay, at the side of an estuary, and here the scenery becomes melancholy and flat; expanses of mud, saltish commons, the marsh-birds crying.”
Some decades later, the great German writer W. G. Sebald fell even more deeply in love with the oblique charms of Aldeburgh and neighboring villages, and devoted his book The Rings of Saturn to the geography and history of the region. “I had not a single thought in my head,” Sebald wrote, describing one of his walks across the flats. “With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound…. I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”
There are ruins all around Aldeburgh. At Dunwich, a few miles up the coast, an entire medieval town has slid into the sea. Around Orford, to the south, the landscape is dotted with relics of two world wars and the Cold War that followed — gun emplacements, designed to impede a Nazi invasion that never came; radar masts, employing the technology invented by researchers in nearby Bawdsey Manor; Atomic Weapons Establishment facilities, looking like skeletons of palaces. When the weather changes, these wide-open vistas of sea and sky, with their stone and metal memories of the past, can have a somewhat terrifying effect. A mass of black cloud rears up behind a sunlit scene; the sea turns a dull, menacing green; an abandoned house groans in the wind. Then, in the next second, the light changes. The water assumes a rich, iridescent color, as if lit from within. Anonymous jewels sparkle in the beach. The sun appears under the ceiling of cloud and floods the world.
On the slope beside the Aldeburgh church lies the grave of Benjamin Britten. He was born thirty miles up the coast, in Lowestoft, in 1913. His childhood home looked over the beach to the North Sea, or the German Ocean, as it was called before the First World War. For most of his life, he lived in the Aldeburgh area, and he once stated that all his music came from there. “I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships,” he said in a speech in Aspen, Colorado, in 1964. “I want my music to be of use to people, to please them…. I do not write for posterity.” Britten designed many of his pieces for performance in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall and in churches in the area. In 1948, with his companion, the tenor Peter Pears, and the writer-director Eric Crozier, he founded the Aldeburgh Festival, which featured his own music, contemporary works from Europe and America, and favorite repertory of the past; it was a kind of anti-Bayreuth, as intimate as Wagner’s festival was grandiose.
Above all, Britten wrote Peter Grimes, an opera of staggering dramatic power that is soaked in Aldeburgh to its bones. First heard in June 1945, one month after the end of the European war, it tells of a fisherman who causes the death of his apprentices and loses his mind out of guilt and fear. The story comes from the poet George Crabbe, who grew up in Aldeburgh in the later eighteenth century, and apparently based the character of Grimes on a real-life case. Crabbe describes the Suffolk coast thus:
….The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide....
Here dull and hopeless he’d lie down and trace
How sidelong crabs had scrawl’d their crooked race;
Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye….
The first orchestral interlude in Britten’s opera brings the coast to life. High grace notes mimic the cries of birds; rainbowlike arpeggios imitate the play of light on the water; booming brass chords approximate the thudding of the waves. It is rich, expansive music, recalling Debussy’s La Mer and Mahler's more pantheistic moods. Yet it hardly ravishes the senses: the orchestration is spare, the melodic figures are sharply turned, the plain harmonies flecked with dissonance. The music is poised perfectly between the familiar and the strange, the pictorial and the psychological. Like the tone poems of Sibelius, it is gives shape to what a wanderer feels as he walks alone.
In his Aspen speech, Britten provocatively compared the regimentation of culture in totalitarian states to the self-imposed regimentation of the avant-garde in democratic countries. Any ideological organization of music, he said, distorts a composer’s natural voice, his “gift and personality.” Everything about Britten’s style — his deliberate parochialism, his tonal orientation, his preference for classical forms — went against the grain of the postwar era. Luminaries of the avant-garde made a point of snubbing him; at the Dartington Summer School in 1959, Luigi Nono refused to shake his hand. Much else about Britten was at odds with Cold War social norms: his pacifism, his leftism, and especially his homosexuality.
Nonetheless, he succeeded in becoming a respected national figure, a focus of British pride. In this respect he was a little like Sibelius, a lonely, troubled man who became a patriotic icon. Even closer in temperament was Dmitri Shostakovich, whom Britten got to know in the nineteen-sixties. Despite the language barrier, the two composers formed a lasting bond. What they had in common was the ability to write elusive emotions across the surface of their music. Britten made his inner landscape as vivid as the rumble of the sea, the cries of the gulls, and the scuttling of the crabs....
Colin Davis conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, from Philips 289 462 847-2.