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third ear

At home with Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten at the piano in Aldeburgh, England.

Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Benjamin Britten at the piano in Aldeburgh, England.

ALDEBURGH, England – The rugged, pebbly beach in this small coastal town looks out onto the limitless expanse of the North Sea. On a recent evening at dusk, the light was flat, the sky low and vast, the air made thick by a mist blowing in from the shore.

A composer’s art of course cannot be reduced to the landscapes that first held his gaze or nurtured his imagination, but neither can the meaning of such vistas be easily dismissed. Especially here. In the austere and solitary beauty of this Suffolk coastline, there is something essential about the music of Benjamin Britten.

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It may at first seem strange to search for the spirit of an international composer in a place as remote as Aldeburgh, particularly in the composer’s current centennial year, when more than 2,000 performances of his music are taking place across the globe. Among them will be Britten’s “Curlew River,” presented next month in Lenox in a Tanglewood Music Center production directed by Mark Morris, and the composer’s monumental “War Requiem” performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra this fall.

But Britten was born just 30 miles away, and he lived and worked in Suffolk for almost his entire lifetime. He walked on this beach, swam daily in this sea, carried home its herring for breakfast. He wrote much of his music to be performed in the festival he cofounded here in 1948. He is buried in a simple grave in the local churchyard.

Britten believed in the idea of roots; not in the ways that the 19th-century Romantic nationalists once did, but in the sense of creating art informed by a felt contact with the particulars of place and community. In a century where so many composers’ lives and careers were riven by war, revolution, and exile, Britten had the distinct privilege of staying put. And he used it to maximum advantage.

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Verdi and Wagner are also enjoying big round-numbered anniversaries this year, but their stature is secure. Britten, who died in 1976 at age 63, stands to gain more from the centennial attention, and from the process of sifting through his enormous output. Best known for his operas, he nonetheless created works in a remarkable range of genres: chamber music, orchestral scores, piercing song cycles and choral works. He wrote not just for professionals but also for children. As a pianist and conductor, he understood the visceral joys of performance. He once invented a percussion instrument from mugs slung on a string. In an era when avant-gardists turned their back on the idea of the audience, he had the temerity to speak of wanting his music “to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives.’”

Yet Britten was also a composer of many tensions. His creed of ennobled provincialism coexisted with a deep interest in the broader musical currents of the 20th century. As a budding young composer he wanted to study with the modernist master Alban Berg, but his mother decided against it. Fugitive dissonances often subvert the smooth surfaces of his work, and there is a darkness in many of his operas that makes his art very much a product of its time.

His success made him the most famous English opera composer since Purcell, and the leading figure in his country’s postwar musical life. Yet as a gay man living with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, in a society that criminalized homosexuality, he was drawn to the painful trials of outsiders. His breakthrough opera “Peter Grimes” is set in a thinly veiled Aldeburgh around 1830, and takes up the plight of a poor fisherman whose ambiguous crimes and reckless hope for a better life earn him the wrath of the close-minded small town. And yet in Act I, even as tongues wag, Grimes will not consider plying his trade anywhere else. “I am native, rooted here,” he sings. Rooted by what? “By familiar fields, marsh and sand, ordinary streets, prevailing wind.”

That description may not make great marketing copy for the modern-day town of Aldeburgh, but at a time when many classical music events can feel blandly homogenized, the bonds that link Britten’s music, his life, and his festival to this rocky stretch of English coastline exert a charisma all their own. The centenary seemed the right occasion to visit Britten’s Aldeburgh. So I did.

“Peter Grimes,” staged on the beach at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival.

Lucy Carter

“Peter Grimes,” staged on the beach at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival.

Into the Borough

Once a thriving fishing village, Aldeburgh has few fishermen left, but one end of the beach is still dotted by small huts where the daily catch is sold either raw or smoked. The town retains its quaintness and has become a retreat spot for tourists or nerve-frazzled weekenders from London. The Aldeburgh Festival, which concluded June 23, has kept Britten’s music at its center through the years, but has avoided taking on the air of musty shrine by maintaining contact with other contemporary music, much as it did in Britten’s own lifetime.

The festival’s current director is Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a French pianist whose musical tastes run toward the ultra-modern. But Aldeburgh Music, which runs the festival, also has a canny administrator named Jonathan Reekie, who has a flair for honoring its founding ideals while at the same time creating buzz-worthy spectacles. Under his watch, past festivals have colonized old aircraft hangars and a nearby nuclear power plant. This year, for Britten’s centenary, the festival pulled off its boldest caper yet, staging “Peter Grimes” directly on the beach that inspired its music.

I saw that performance on my last night in Aldeburgh, but before then took in a few other presentations, including a remarkable interactive theater piece called “The Borough,” by the British company Punchdrunk. Each performance has an audience of one: you. Guided by a narration delivered through headphones, you are walked across streets and marshland, into pubs and private homes, and ultimately back into the village’s 19th-century past. The work’s ultimate destination is the world of Peter Grimes, as first sketched by the poet George Crabbe and later improbably discovered by Britten in a California bookstore. Here actors converge on your route as townsfolk then and now, or characters from the opera: the schoolteacher Ellen Orford, an old drunk, a wide-eyed boy in a tattered sweater.

The audio track makes powerful use of Britten’s score, and the piece comes to a chilling climax in a desolate fishing hut surrounded by tall reeds, where a staged encounter clearly aims to convey the Grimesian terror of being hunted. But the piece’s real potency lies in how its theater of the streets blurs past and present, art and reality. I later asked a theater tech just how many people had participated in the performance. “I can’t tell you that,” she said slyly. “In a way, it’s the whole town.”

Curating a reputation

Between concerts I stopped by the Red House, the secluded home into which Britten and Pears moved in 1957, and which became a center of his private musical life. It now houses the Britten-Pears Foundation, which has been busy leading up to the centenary year, launching a meticulous new exhibition and restoring Britten’s studio, where a visitor can now see the desk at which he wrote the “War Requiem” while gazing out onto peaceful Suffolk orchards. Even so, the world found a way to puncture Britten’s rural idyll, as the US Air Force began test flights in the 1970s from a nearby base, passing directly above his studio. Britten, who was a confirmed pacifist, could not tolerate the noise and wrote his final works from another location, around 25 miles away.

Interestingly, the reputations of many composers suffer a dip immediately after their deaths; the music of Britten’s contemporary Michael Tippett, for instance, has mostly disappeared from view. But Britten’s reputation continues on the ascent, a fact for which the Britten-Pears Foundation deserves at least some portion of credit. It supports recordings and performances, and has published his selected letters in six volumes — a project that itself took some 25 years. The foundation’s own work is partly funded by the substantial royalties earned from performances of Britten’s operas. “The fact that Britten wasn’t married and didn’t have a family,” foundation director Richard Jarman confessed to me, “has certainly been helpful.”

The most impressive realization of the foundation’s work is a newly built archive constructed on the grounds of the Red House, which now contains what may be the largest single-composer collection in the world. Britten was one of the century’s great hoarders, and this archive houses a staggering amount of materials: manuscripts and drafts, costumes and photographs, roughly 80,000 letters, and 700 works of juvenilia. Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow, had dropped in the day before my visit, and Shostakovich’s own letters to Britten had been placed on a table for her to survey. Despite their infrequent visits, the two men enjoyed a close musical bond, but even knowing this fact, the generosity of Shostakovich’s prose catches one by surprise. “Your music is the most outstanding phenomenon of the 20th century,” he wrote to Britten in one letter from 1963. “And for me it is in the service of profound and powerful impressions. Write as much as possible. It is necessary for humanity — and certainly for me.”

Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh Beach in England in 1959.

Hans Wild

Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh Beach in England in 1959.

Opera with the seagulls

The Moot Hall in Aldeburgh is an old weather-beaten Tudor building that erosion has brought perilously close to the sea. It has been the seat of local Aldeburgh government since the 16th century. It was also immortalized by “Peter Grimes” as the site of the opening prologue in which Grimes is questioned about the death of his young apprentice. Its interior has been depicted on opera stages around the world, including at Tanglewood, where the work received its US premiere in 1946.

Surreally enough, this month the real Moot Hall was pressed into rickety service as an international media center, complete with WiFi access. On the last night of my visit, journalists were greeted there by the local mayor, offered a hardy serving of fish pie, and handed blankets and ponchos. We were heading for the beach.

“Peter Grimes” had never been actually staged in Aldeburgh because there was no theater large enough to accommodate it, until festival planners dreamed up the idea of performing in the open air. Singers would of course need to be miked, and it was quickly determined that the performance by the young musicians of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, under the baton of Steuart Bedford, would be pre-recorded. Even so, little about this karaoke-type scenario prepared you for the impact of the live event.

The set by Leslie Travers consisted of raised walkways, lampposts, and a collection of ramshackle boats pitched at odd angles or half-buried in the shingle beach, as if strewn by nature in the wake of a massive storm. An audience of around 700 sat on risers, with 1,000 additional listeners sitting directly on the shingle. (“Why have we no shingle in America?,” Copland once wondered after a visit.)

Alan Oke in the title role and Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford both delivered strong performances, and director Tim Albery moved the chorus with great skill. One can of course find more musically detailed and subtle accounts of this score, but as a cumulative experience of “Peter Grimes,” nothing in my travels has come close to hearing this opera here. At 8:30, when the nonexistent curtain went up, the remaining daylight encouraged the eye to wander beyond the set, to survey the surroundings, to marvel at the recalcitrant seagulls declining to have their screeches sublimated into Britten’s score. The composer wrote this very seascape directly into the opera, seagulls included, most famously in the interludes that have become staples of the modern orchestral repertoire. Here was the music in its native habitat.

Once the sun fully set for the latter acts, the production’s own lighting took over, and the scenes attained an uncanny intimacy and intensity, the singers framed only by the night sky and the mist rising off the water. In quieter moments you could hear the waves obeying a tempo all their own. At the end of the opera, Grimes, with a posse of townsmen on his heels, is encouraged by his friend Balstrode to sail his boat far off shore and sink it. He takes the advice. The stage directions in the libretto state, “together they push the boat down the slope of the shore,” and modern theaters do their best to simulate this image. Here, Grimes launched off in an actual boat, disappearing into the darkness beyond which lay the sea. The gesture was simple and devastating.

“Peter Grimes” will be performed widely throughout the centenary year, including this fall at Carnegie Hall. But taking in the opera here laid bare at least one source of the music’s power: the universal in Britten’s art is reached through the particular. We know the world of Grimes because Britten did, from these “ordinary streets and prevailing wind” to the darker, storm-ravaged wilderness of a soul at the center of a cruel society. Rootedness for Britten cut both ways, and part of his genius lay in not falsely harmonizing such tensions, as so many do, but in transmuting them into art.

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