“I am native, rooted here…”
STUART MILLSON offers a centenary appreciation of the life and works of Benjamin Britten
The River Alde is one of the most beautiful river landscapes in England. From the quay at the Snape Maltings, at which an antique barge is often moored, to the wide, reed-fringed creek at Iken with its sandy shoreline, the river passes through the quiet world of East Suffolk. Curlews, gulls and waders flock to the mudflats at low tide, and as the naturalist Simon Barnes observed in a Radio 3 talk last year (on Suffolk and Britten), the waders – governed, not by day and night, but by the ebb and flow of the sea, are active at dusk, midnight and the early hours of the morning; their calls breaking the silence of the night, making these unearthly, secret times exciting and life-enhancing, and surprising to those who have never encountered such nocturnal birdlife before. On a moonlit evening when the tide is out, the Alde is truly a curlew river.
Further south from Aldeburgh (the southern extremity of the borough is marked by a martello tower, the most northerly-situated of its kind in England) the river passes by the town quay of Orford, once a busy scene, painted by J.M.W. Turner, and the lonely Orford Ness. Avocets can be spotted, a species once rare, but now more easily to be found in this coastal region of clear air and clean water. In August, combine harvesters are at work in the soft-yellow, light-brown farmscape of fields which leads away from the estuary’s causeway. Orford Castle looms in the distance: mediaeval and Civil War England never far away. The seemingly limitless, heaving breast of the North Sea is held at bay by the shingle beaches and spits of Suffolk, but in the 18th century, the town of Dunwich was swallowed whole by the waters.
This is the England of the 18th/early-19th century poet, George Crabbe, and the opera which his writings inspired – Peter Grimes, and the vast output of music by Suffolk-born composer, Benjamin Britten (1913-76), one of the most outstanding musical personalities this country has ever produced. Britten was a highly-gifted individual: musical in every way, and one of those rare human-beings (Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven had the gene) born for their art. The young musician was inspired by the partly-conservative, partly revolutionary composer, Frank Bridge (I use these terms in relation to Bridge’s approach to music) and when hearing his famous suite, The Sea, performed at Norwich, Britten confessed to being “knocked sideways”. Britten was to emerge very much as a modern composer, a genuinely avant-garde figure; a break from the Elgar-Parry-Stanford school of English music, although never entirely forsaking the inheritance of Englishness which those earlier composers (and the composers of the 16th and 17th centuries, Byrd to Purcell) represented. In fact, in post-war England, Britten became a figure of the establishment: welcoming the Queen to the Alderburgh Festival, orchestrating a particularly moving version of the National Anthem, and composing (in 1953) a coronation opera, Gloriana.
Britten’s first great masterpiece was a work for the Boyd Neel Orchestra, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, a work of breathtaking vitality and quality, and filled with the shadows, moody angularity, and fitful, febrile energy which were to become hallmarks of his writing. The piece was first performed at Salzburg in 1937 to considerable acclaim, and although radical, belonged to the general tradition of English music for strings, as established by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Holst. But two years later, Britten was to leave England for America. A pacifist, strongly influenced by W.H. Auden, and with left-leaning political ideals, the composer was temperamentally unable to face the onslaught of war, but by 1942 had become profoundly homesick, especially after re-reading the works of George Crabbe which evoked the lost world of Suffolk and its coastline – and served as the inspiration for the 1945 opera, Peter Grimes.
It was this work that made Britten’s name and re-established English opera, which was often viewed as having disappeared as a major force following the death of Henry Purcell in 1695. The story concerns a Suffolk fisherman (Grimes) who lives as an outsider in his village, yet continues to receive the enduring sympathy of a widow, Ellen Orford. (Even the names – Grimes, Orford – root the work firmly in East Anglia.) But great suspicion surrounds the protagonist, due to his lonely, unorthodox ways, and the unexplained death of his apprentice. The orchestral writing for the opera is among the very finest ever produced by a 20th-century composer: prickling tension comes through the score’s interplay of tonality and atonality, through sea-mists, Sunday morning church-bells and searing passion, despairing cadences, and beautiful flurries of notes as sea-birds take to the air or sunlight dances on waves. Yet throughout the drama, Grimes seems like a ghost. During the court scene which begins the story, his answers to the questions put to him seem to come from someone who is floating in another dimension; and there is a scene in the tavern, when the fisherman sings, as if in a trance, of the star formations that he sees above him at night on the waters. (These sensations are certainly evoked by the incomparable 1958 recording of the opera, with Sir Peter Pears in the title-role, and Britten conducting the forces of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.) By the end, Grimes is on the very edge of insanity, and puts to sea for the last time, sinking his own boat and disappearing, as if he has never been there at all – the village, and life, and the tides of the sea, just continue as they have ever done.
In one memorable line, Grimes pronounces: “I am native, rooted here…” – words that could be used to summarise the entire theme of the opera. As the musicologist and Britten expert, Donald Mitchell, observed, there was a profound “Englishry” in Britten’s music; not the Englishry of pomp and circumstance, but the music of Suffolk churches, the madrigals and poetry from the age of the first Elizabeth, of sea-plants enduring the North Sea winds at the edge of fishing villages, of hobby-horses and strange festivals on local greens. Britten’s music has elements of it all, as can be heard in his short film score for Around the Village Green, and in his much greater choral-orchestral Spring Symphony, first performed in Holland in 1949. The idea for the symphony was suggested by a glorious spring day in Suffolk (a county of pink blossom, and little clusters of pink or white-painted cottages) and Britten immediately turned to poets such as Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, John Milton and William Blake. Spenser’s “The merry cuckoo, messenger of spring” sets the merry, rustic tone of the early sections of the piece; but a shattering climax is to come in what is, at first, a deceptively-pastoral Auden setting, “Out on the lawn, I lie in bed/Vega conspicuous overhead… on those windless nights of June” – with all the trumpets and drums which one would find in the composer’s War Requiem of 1962, unleashed across the spring landscape.
From the late 1940s until the composer’s death in 1976, Aldeburgh was to be the composer’s domain and creative power-house. The tenor, Sir Peter Pears, was Britten’s lifelong companion as well as musical partner, and there are some very fine recordings of Schubert lieder and of English folk-song, not to mention the recording of Peter Grimes referred to earlier. The Aldeburgh Festival (and the magnificent Snape Maltings concert hall in which the main concerts continue to take place) attracted performers of the highest international calibre, and Britten exerted a huge influence as a musical ambassador for this country. He knew Shostakovich, wrote a Cello Symphony for Rostropovich, and nurtured a generation of modern composers and followers, such as Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen. The formula of the Festival, whose foundation is his enduring legacy, was described as “a subtle blend of the local and the international”, a description which was completely true of the programme I enjoyed on the Suffolk coast during the summer of 1999: Voyage Into the Golden Screen by the contemporary Danish composer, Per Norgard (born, 1932), Knussen’s Second Symphony – with settings of Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath – and Sibelius’s suite from his incidental music to The Tempest.
Britten was also a great conductor, his recordings (many of which were undertaken in the magnificent acoustic of the Snape Maltings) offering a reminder of the pre-authentic instrument movement in baroque music. Bach, Elgar and Purcell with the English Chamber Orchestra offer many riches to the lover of vintage stereo recordings; and there is also a dramatic version of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius for Decca, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. A remarkable BBC archive recording from the July of 1961 was issued some ten years ago, with Britten conducting Mahler’s nature-inspired Fourth Symphony at Blythburgh Church, a sublime setting just inland from the sands of Walberswick. And Britten also conducted his War Requiem at the Proms to immense acclaim.
Whether it was his richly romantic Tennyson setting, The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls (from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings) or in his cantata about the life of St. Nicolas, or in Curlew River, first performed at Orford Church, Britten was a composer of complete originality, able to work with amateur performers and ordinary people, or with the very greatest international soloists. His death in 1976 marked the passing of the great revival of English music which had probably begun at the turn of that century. The Britten centenary this year offers us a chance to listen again to the works of a true master, who was never happier than walking along the pathways of the Suffolk coast, the drama and beauty of the land and the sea shaping a musical language of unique power and sensitivity.
STUART MILLSON is the QR’s music editor