Sunday, March 15, 2015

There'll Always Be an England: Snape, Crabbe, Grimes, & Britten Walk Into a Bar

This is one of those nestling dolls posts . . .

I'll be visiting—what is to an American's ear—the improbably named Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England at the end of the week.

Seems there is a small town named Snape, on the River Alde, near the east coastal town of Aldeburgh, which wiki says has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. And yes, JK Rawlings named Professor Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame for the town.  Now that's a great piece of trivia.

Even more amazing: you can connect Severus Snape to none other than Benjamin Britten, who was born in Suffolk. In 1937 he took money his mother left him to purchase the Old Mill in Snape, nearby to the Snape Maltings complex, and used it as a studio and home before moving to The Red House in Aldeburgh in 1957, which he shared with tenor Peter Pears until Britten's death in 1976.

The Maltings?  Yes, the town had been a center for malting barely for beer production starting in the 1880s when a Victorian entrepreneur named Newson Garrett built the facility.

In 1948 Britten and Pears, along with writer Eric Crozier,  founded an annual music festival, in Aldeburgh. In the 1960s the festival had outgrown its Aldeburgh Festival hall, AND the company that was producing the malt went out of business, and so . . .  Britten put the two things together. He negotiated to have the Maltings building converted into a 832-seat Concert Hall, which was officially opened in 1967 by HM Queen Elizabeth II and has been the prime venue for the festival since.

Snape Maltings is back in the news, because it is being sold to the charity that organizes the Aldeburgh Festival: From the BBC site on March 5:

 "A popular tourist destination on the Suffolk coast is to become a "creative campus" that aims to match the vision of renowned composer Benjamin Britten (pictured above).

Snape Maltings, a collection of retail units, galleries and residential flats, is being sold to Aldeburgh Music. The charity organises the annual Aldeburgh Festival and runs the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Mr Wright said Aldeburgh Music's plans for Snape Maltings would fulfil "Britten's vision for a creative campus with a new level of public engagements".

I got pulled into all of this because I'm attending a conference called Names Not Numbers that uses venues in Aldeburgh and Snape.

But there's more!

Peter Grimes: The Great Benjamin Britten Opera
Britten wrote one of his masterpieces--the opera Peter Grimes---in Snape!

From "In 1942, Britten, then living in America, came across an article by the novelist EM Forster on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe. Crabbe’s poem ‘The Borough’ inspired Britten’s first full-scale opera, Peter Grimes, the work that launched him internationally as the leading British composer of his generation and which almost single-handedly revived English opera."

George Crabbe—whom Hazlitt called “a misanthrope in verse” while Byron proclaimed him “Nature’s sternest painter, but the best”—was born in Aldeburgh in 1754, and the poems capture the lives of the villagers.

I saw Peter Grimes at the Met in 2008, and that sent me back to see what my mentor Paul Fussell had said about Crabbe in his go-to Eighteenth-Century Literature: "The Borough is twenty-four verse “letters” that describe a village, from the Church, to its doctors and lawyers, to the middle-class amusement of clubs, and then, halfway through, “turns to the dark underworld of the indigent, the frustrated, the criminal, and the insane.” (Yeah, that’s the part Peter Grimes is in.)

What Fussell liked in Crabbe was the anti-pastoral. While much of English poetry was imbued with happy, passionate shepherds mooning for love— “Come live with me and be my Love/And we will all the pleasures prove”—Crabbe wrote his character sketches of actual, rural agriculture life, and how hard and soul-crushing it really was.

I was surprised at how different the poem is from the opera, but like all creative endeavors, the original idea was transformed to something new.

The poem begins with Peter Grimes and his own mother and father and what we would now call elder abuse:

“How he had oft the good old Man revil’d
And never paid the Duty of a Child.

Nay, once had dealt the sacrilegious Blow
On his bare Head, and laid his Parent low”

Poem Peter is set up as heinous from the beginning, with patricide as one of the gravest of mortal sins. He grows up to be an even darker and more twisted man:

"He wanted some obedient Boy to stand
And bear the blow of his outrageous hand
And hop’d to find in some propitious hour
A feeling Creature subject to his Power."

He finds such a victim, a young apprentice.

“Some few in Town observ’d in Peter’s Trap
A Boy, with Jacket blue and wollen Cap;
But non inquir’d how Peter us’d the Rope
Or what the Bruise, that made the Stripling stoop”

In Crabbe, the town is not a mob, but an indifferent witness to a child in trouble.

“The trembling Boy dropt down and strove to pray
Receiv’d a Blow, and trembling turn’d away
Or sobb’d and hid his piteous face;--while he,
The savage Master, grinn’d in horrible glee;
He’d now the power he ever loved to show,
A feeling Being subject to his Blow."

Poem Peter has already killed 2 boys, when he is at the inquest for another boy, which is where the opera starts its action, and the Mayor says, “Henceforth with thee shall never Boy abide; Hire thee a Freeman.”

Poem Peter is so hated, that no man will work with him. The ardor of fishing by himself turns into nervous exhaustion that decays to madness. In the end he is a writhing lunatic, and confesses to a priest: for months he has seen his father walking on water, with a murdered boy holding each of his hands. The trio will not let him rest.

“Then with an inward, broken voice he cried,
‘Again they come,’ and mutter’d as he died."

Opera Peter is simply a harsh man whom Britten sees as a product of his society; he once described his work as “the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual."

I think Crabbe would have agreed in general with this idea, but his Peter was more of a Bad Seed and less a product of poverty.

The opera introduces the widow Ellen, who tries to reach out to Peter and bring him in from the cold. When she sees the bruise on the new apprentice, all hope for a new future for Peter is shattered. Then the boy falls to his death, and Peter sets out to sea to kill himself, to escape certain death from the townspeople who are now a mob.

I don’t see as much ambiguity in Opera Peter as others do. The beauty of some of Peter’s arias just makes his crime of violence against a child all the more severe—if he can imagine “kindlier homes,” then he should be able to stop torturing a boy. End of story.

Both Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears are buried in the parish cemetery of St. Peter and St. Paul's in Aldeburgh.  I hope to visit when I'm in the neighborhood.