On an overcast Saturday earlier this month, a steady procession of pilgrims passed through the tranquil graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Aldeburgh, a picturesque Suffolk town on England’s harshly beautiful east coast.
They had come for a midday performance in the 15th-century parish church of a cello sonata by Benjamin Britten, the English composer who lived and worked in Aldeburgh and whose centenary is being celebrated this year with more than 2,000 events in 39 countries.
During the interval, many sought out Britten’s grave, marked by an elegantly simple black headstone, engraved by the typographer and artist Reynolds Stone. It bears only Britten’s name and dates – 1913 to 1976 – and lacks any epitaph.
Britten’s epitaph is, of course, his music – almost 100 works, including his 13 operas – the annual festival he founded at Aldeburgh in 1948 and the year-round music programme at the nearby Snape Maltings, which in 1967 Britten converted into a spectacular concert hall on the reed-fringed banks of the Alde River.
Britten was inspired by the haunting beauty of the East Anglian landscape and in many ways this is his living epitaph – the big skies, captured by artists such as John Constable, the mysterious, flat marshland fringing the coast and, above all, the sea.
The sea plays such a part in Britten’s work that it can almost be said to be a character, especially in works such as Peter Grimes, his best known and most frequently performed opera.
Many of those who walked to Britten’s grave passed close to an unnoticed memorial to seven local sailors and fishermen, volunteer lifeboatmen drowned on December 7, 1899, when the Aldeburgh lifeboat was overturned in a North Sea gale while trying to help a ship driven onto one of the treacherous offshore sandbanks. It is fitting that Britten lies among them, and the other fishermen and sailors buried here, for such were the ghosts that haunted the composer‘s imagination and drove his creativity.
Britten, a Suffolk-born composer who moved to America in 1939 to further his career, found himself drawn back to England in 1941 by a chance encounter with the work of the 18th-century Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe – in particular The Borough, a collection of poems based on the harsh lives of the town’s inhabitants. It “evoked a longing for the realities of that grim and exciting seacoast around Aldeburgh”, he later wrote, and infused him with “such a feeling of nostalgia for Suffolk”.
Within The Borough lies the difficult and terrible story of Peter Grimes, an Aldeburgh fisherman who has not one but three apprentices die in his charge and who is driven by the suspicions of the townsfolk and his own rising madness to sail to his own death.
This was the tragedy that Britten, working with the librettist Montagu Slater, crafted into the opera Peter Grimes. In his introduction for the work’s first performance, at Sadler’s Wells in London in 1945, he explained something of the force that had pulled him home from California.
“For most of my life I have lived closely in touch with the sea,” he wrote. “My parents’ house in Lowestoft directly faced the sea, and my life as a child was coloured by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on to our coast and ate away whole stretches of the neighbouring cliffs.”
In writing Peter Grimes, he had sought “to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea”.
Nowhere has that struggle been more dramatically pursued over the years than along the storm-scoured shingle of Aldeburgh. Ravaged by floods and the gradual failure of the fishing industry in the 19th century, Aldeburgh was reinvented in Victorian and Edwardian times as a genteel seaside resort. Today it is dominated by bijou shops, galleries and cafes. Most of its seafront houses are second homes for wealthy Londoners, earning the town the sobriquet Islington-on-Sea among locals who can no longer afford the property prices – a state of affairs in which the popularity of Britten has doubtless played a significant part.
Nevertheless, as the centenary flags flying all over town proclaim, Britten lives here still. Take a stroll along the shingle where the composer once prowled deep in contemplation and it is not hard to step back in time, as he must have done as he pondered the story of Peter Grimes.
There are far fewer of them these days, but the fishermen who still launch clinker-built boats from the beach, leaving scraps for the seagulls and selling their catch to weekending visitors from huts along the shore, continue to man the Aldeburgh lifeboat.
A spectacular staging this week of the opera Peter Grimes, right on Aldeburgh’s shingle beach and within sight of the lifeboat station, invited audiences and performers to brave the elements confronted by the opera’s characters, in the process blurring the boundary between art and the everyday in an almost surreal manner.
While some of the town’s boats continued to go about their daily business, others had been co-opted into the performance, half buried in the shingle, as though by a raging sea, or thrown up like toys on the stage, a twisted wooden boardwalk complete with street lamps, bollards and fish boxes, perched precariously on the shingle at the very seaward edge of the steeply shelving beach.
It was, admits Jonathan Reekie, Aldeburgh Music’s chief executive, a courageous decision to stage the opera on the beach, immersing performers and audience in the opera’s theme of how the local community struggles with its environment, but one that was well worth the risk. “It’s impossible to stage Grimes conventionally in Aldeburgh because there isn’t a concert hall big enough,” he says, “but we felt that it should be staged in its home once in history, and this seemed like the year to do it.”
One contemporary artist who entirely understands Aldeburgh’s hold on Britten is James Dodds, whose beautiful paintings and intricate linocuts owe much to his lifelong affair with the East Anglian landscape – an affair triggered by a familial connection with the work of George Crabbe.
His father Andrew Dodds was an illustrator for the Radio Times in the 1950s and 1960s. “He was doing a series of drawings to illustrate Britten’s Sea Interludes,” recalls Dodds, who as a boy found himself posing for his father as the young Peter Grimes and his unfortunate apprentices. “I grew up with the music playing in the background. I became very engaged with it.”
The Sea Interludes, part of Peter Grimes, are also performed separately as a haunting orchestral work in their own right. In Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight and Storm, the presence of the sea is keenly felt, from the sounds of the ominous early-morning swell lapping at the shingle to the raging storm of the fearful night.
Dodds grew up in East Anglia and learnt to sail at an early age, exploring the reed-fringed creeks that meander through the marshes along the coast, immersing himself in a landscape that would later come to dominate his art.
In his final year at the Royal College of Art in London, by a strange coincidence the students were set the challenge of illustrating the story of Peter Grimes and Dodds did 14 linocuts, which were exhibited at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1984 as part of his first solo show.
After that, he came home and embraced his East Anglian heritage, which shows through today in his masterful studies of the area’s working boats and landscapes.
“It felt a bit like the story Britten told of being in America and coming across a copy of Crabbe’s The Borough,” he says. “It felt that this was my part of the world and I was the man to illustrate it.”
Today, says Dodds, “Aldeburgh is a place where I’ll go and walk along the beach and clear my head if I’ve got stuck with my work. The sea has a sort of grounding effect. The light, the big skies and the sea are ever changing – its beauty is very subtle.”
And, occasionally, very fierce. To sit on the shingle at Aldeburgh and gaze out across the North Sea during an easterly gale is to teeter on the very edge of civilisation’s dominion and, in the teeth of the salt spray that flays the air, to commune with the spirits of the past, stirred up from the deep.
The dangerous sandbanks off the coast are littered with the lost ships and souls of fact and fiction. A few hundred metres north of the modern lifeboat station, built in 1994, stands The Scallop, a striking, four-metre-tall sculptural tribute to Britten by the Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling. The words cut out of the weathering steel shell are taken from Peter Grimes, but seem to speak of all souls lost hereabouts: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”.
The Aldeburgh Festival continues until tomorrow. International celebrations to mark Britten’s centenary continue all this year: www.britten100.org
Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The Review.