Listening to Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers at Bard College two weekends ago, I thought, as many have thought before me, of Peter Grimes. The coastal village setting, the counterpoint of church hymns and solo voices, the massed choruses of suspicion and rage, the ostracizing of a rebellious fisherman, his trial, the woman who breaks from the crowd to protect him, sea interludes of impressionist character — the overlap is considerable. There is nothing in Britten's score that inarguably smacks of Smyth, and Montagu Slater's libretto is rooted entirely in the George Crabbe source. Smyth is mentioned only a couple of times in Britten's collected letters and diaries, with no sign of interest. In 1931, the teen-aged Britten heard several of Smyth's songs on the BBC and described them as "despicable." All the same, I can't help feeling that there is a more than coincidental connection between the two scores. Consider the bloodthirsty chorus that ends Act I of The Wreckers:
From the 1994 Conifer recording, with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Odaline de la Martinez.
Compare "Now is gossip put on trial" from Grimes:
Or "Who holds himself apart":
One can imagine Britten listening to The Wreckers and saying to himself, in his youthful, superior way, "That could be a good opera, if done properly."
Did Britten hear The Wreckers or see the score? Jane Bernstein addressed the question in her 1986 essay "Shout, Shout, Up with Your Song!," which appeared in Jane Bowers and Judith Tick's anthology Women Making Music. Bernstein noted that a score of The Wreckers could be found in the Britten-Pears library at Aldeburgh, and asked Donald Mitchell, Britten's longtime associate, how well Britten knew it; Mitchell told her that he didn't, and that the score was a later acquisition. But this doesn't rule out the possibility that Britten had encountered The Wreckers earlier. The opera was revived at Sadler's Wells on April 19, 1939, in what seems to have been a run of six performances. Around that time, Britten was in Aldeburgh, preparing to go to Birmingham for the première, on April 21, of two songs from what would become his song cycle Les Illuminations. It's unlikely that he could have made it to London for the opening night. He did go to London afterward, as he prepared to make the long voyage to America, on April 29. He might have attended a later performance; he could certainly have tuned in to the BBC, on April 22, for a live broadcast from Sadler's Wells. The central role of Thirza was sung by Edith Coates, who, six years later, would create the role of Auntie in Grimes, at the same house.
Dame Ethel was present for that opening night in 1939. The critic Ronald Crichton recalled the occasion in a 1994 article for Opera: "Noise, bracing noise, of crashing waves is what one most remembers from the Sadler's Wells revival of 1939, especially during the last act, with the chorus, Edith Coates and John Wright all singing fit to burst. Loud as they were the composer, who was present at the first night, was unable to hear them because of her deafness, as she told us without self-pity in a curtain speech when she came on to the stage at the end, stoutly dressed, with a laurel wreath slung over folded arms."
Previously: An Ethel Smyth moment.