Week52 (Part 1): benjamin britten - Peter Grimes; carl sandburg; SOHN



Phillips Recording. Printed in the Netherlands // Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) // Peter Grimes (1945) 

Orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Conducted by Colin Davis 

Peter Grimes - Jon Vickers 

Ellen Orford - Heather Harper 

Captain Balstrode - Jonathan Summers 

Auntie - Elizabeth Bainbridge 

First Niece - Teresa Cahill 

Second Niece - Anne Pashley 

Bob Boles - John Dobson 

Swallow - Forbes Robinson 

Ned Keen - Thomas Allen 

I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked. I had becomes without roots… “” benjamin britten, Letters from a Life (1998)

A bleak little place; not beautiful...and what a wallop the sea makes as it pounds at the shingle! Nearby is a quay, at the side of an estuary, and here the scenery becomes melancholy and flat; expanses of mud, saltish commons, the march-birds crying. “” e.m. forster describing the town of aldeburgh (the inspiration for the setting of Peter Grimes) on The Listener (may 29, 1941)

The Old Man and the Sea —  Oscar Bjorck (1885)

The Old Man and the Sea — Oscar Bjorck (1885)

i’ve watched enough BBC4 programs to arrive justifiably to the conclusion that california is a sort of mecca for rich british folk, the promised-land of sunshine and flip-flops and the destination of a necessary pilgrimage to a place as conceptually far away as possible from every kind of burgh, shire, hampton and the long etcetera of suffixes appendaged unto the many dreary dwellings of that storied island. so it’s quite appropriate that the conception of britten’s Peter Grimes began quite accidentally in a second-hand bookshop in los angeles. his life-long partner, peter pears, bought a used copy of an anthology of poems by george crabbe (The Borough), one of which is called ‘The Poor of the Borough: Peter Grimes’. 

After much soul-searching, Britten sailed back to England in 1942, in the middle of the war. But he had already made a considerable impression in the United States, which led to a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation for what became the opera Peter Grimes. Premiered in 1945, this bleak but electrifying story of a fisherman and his doomed boy apprentice was an international success and placed Britten in the first rank of opera composers and composers in general. In reputation it remains one of the towering operas of the twentieth century. Its leading role, like all Britten’s leading tenor roles, was written expressly and lovingly for Peter Pears. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

it’s beyond me how it’s already been a year since i last listened to this opera, but then again a year is just long enough to forget completely of some of my favourite arias, and returning to it to be surprised with bits like ‘You’ll be sent to Peter Grimes..’ and ‘Old Joe has gone fishin’...’. the best stretch of music in this opera, however, are the four interludes that are known collectively as the ‘Four Seas’. these interludes give the work its backbone, its setting by sea and ominous atmosphere, the dark brooding clouds from which the mass-motived chant of the title character’s name intermittently spears down like lightning: 

‘Dawn’ begins with high, pianissimo violins in unison with flutes - a classic, silvery combination to suggest morning light, from Haydn’s The Creation onwards. Here, the decorations and trills evoke the surface of the water, and the solemn brass chords the deeps below. “” robert phillip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion

‘Moonlight’ follows the end of Act II in which Grimes’s boy has fallen to his death down the cliff. The interlude is striking in its calm simplicity: a Sibelius-like chorale of low strings, waves, is punctuated by falling droplets of flute and harp. The chorale rises to a climax, never losing its halting rhythm, and falls away. “” robert phillip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion

‘Sunday Morning; leads into Act II, Scene 1, ‘a fine sunny morning with church bells ringing’. Four horns set up a pattern of tolling bells, and woodwind join them with syncopated rhythms that are both playful and agitated. These pass to the strings, ending with the seabirds’ chirrups and a whirling descent. While flute and piccolo continue the birdsong aboe, in violas and cellos a lyrical melody rises up, which Ellen Orford will sing at the opening of the next scene. “” robert phillip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion

The fourth interlude, ‘Storm’, occurs in the opera in the middle of Act I. Britten draws on a full range of stormy precedents to create a powerful effect. The urgent phrases at the beginning evoke memories of Debussy’s La Mer.[...]Snarling trombones and trumpets recall the menace of Holst’s ‘Mars’. [...] Next, high woodwind swirl in fragmented phrases, like Shostakovich at his most warlike, punctuated by savage low brass chrods reminiscent of Janáček. “” “” robert phillip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion

‘Open Window’ by Albert Marquet (1924)

‘Open Window’ by Albert Marquet (1924)

coming back to this opera for the third time, some things are more apparent: i have an ear less for Grimes’s railings and unrelenting severities and more for Ellen Orford’s pleading--not that Peter should be spared by the burghers--but that he should spare himself his obsession with his reputation, his tireless work and indefatigable industry: 

This unrelenting work

This grey, unresting industry, 

What aim, what future, what peace

Will your hard profits buy? 

“” Ellen Orford, Act 2, Scene 1

in the year since, i think i know a few things more about what matters most, about the things that ‘unresting industry’ cannot buy, that instead brings peace to work and profit. 

i’ve recently developed a slight obsession with paintings of people standing by windows. perhaps because of the tendency of certain compositions to tease the compatibility of private and sociable dispositions via the placement of a window in an interior with a view of some metropolitan scenery (gustave caillebotte’s Young Man at his Window, as a prime example)...which can impress upon the mind the compatibility of the solitude of creative work and the animal-companionship that makes such work worthwhile. one of carl sandburg’s poems, At A Window, is a very satisfying contemplation on this interaction between the hunger that inspires unrelenting work---a hunger personified in Grimes---and the irreplaceable satisfaction of companionship (which Ellen Orford offers like an outstretched hand till the very end):

Breaking the long loneliness.

In the dusk of day-shapes

Blurring the sunset,

One little wandering, western star

Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.

Let me go to the window,

Watch there the day-shapes of dusk

And wait and know the coming

Of a little love.

“” carl sandburg, At A Window (1916)

Give me hunger,

O you gods that sit and give

The world its orders.

Give me hunger, pain and want,

Shut me out with shame and failure

From your doors of gold and fame,

Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,

A voice to speak to me in the day end,

A hand to touch me in the dark room

(elsewhere in music: Artifice - SOHN)

having to listen to horrible music at work is one of those despiriting sufferings one cannot be adequately compensated for nor ever fully recover from. and that has been the case with most of the jobs i’ve had, especially so with my tenure at the Monocle Magazine Shop on college street. really quite horrendous stuff. it was the kind of music that’s blanched of all primary colours, absolutely no sharp angles. (seemingly composed for the generic purpose of soundtracking a supercut of the nightlife of some nondescript european city---no longer native to the national identity that initially made it a tourist destination, and not quite able to pull off the chic aimless optimism and lightness of touch that animates a truly international city of the north-american sort). with all such places that i’ve worked, my retrospective verdict is unanimous: i stayed too long. 

Cover art for the ‘Tremors’ by SOHN (2014)

Cover art for the ‘Tremors’ by SOHN (2014)

then again nothing is ever what it is all of the time. there are exceptions occasionally (and reluctantly) encountered. the song Artifice by english singer/songwriter christopher michael taylor, otherwise known as SOHN is one such delicious exception. i first heard the song at the aforementioned shop back in january, and it took a bit of a slow burn to get into it, but i’ve since been hooked by the confectionery of its sound production and a rhythm readymade for the dancefloor (reminiscent of Drake’s Find Your Love). the music is laminated by the lucidity of introspective lyrics more befitting of a set of acoustic guitars but yet propelled by that romp-gallop of a beat. Laminated---because the of the conceptually slippery lyrics that don’t quite pin down any particular image. the music video offers even less explanation, but is instead a super-slo-mo camera pan across a scenery in disarray, every fleeing either towards or away from what looks like a car-crash, but reveals itself in actuality to be a failed relationship. 


(that’s the week)

yes indeed, that’s the week: all 52 of them. here’s to another run (god willing and if the creek don’t rise).

thank you 🤟🏾