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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)
Richard Taruskin

Britten had to overcome considerable odds to realize his potential as a musical dramatist. The breakdown of the opera house as an institution coincided with the onset of the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, just when Britten was finding his feet as a composer. There was no longer the possibility of an apprenticeship within the institutional structure of the musical theater. Britten, who had resolved to earn his living as a professional composer rather than a teacher, was forced, ironically enough, into the movie industry—the very force that most starkly threatened the continued viability of the lyric stage.

Like Virgil Thomson in America at roughly the same time, Britten earned his living from 1935 to 1937 providing soundtrack scores for government-sponsored documentaries. Work on films like Coal Face, on harsh labor conditions in the mining industry (some of the music consisting of recorded collages of simulated industrial sounds anticipating musique concrète), or Peace of Britain, about the burdens of defense spending on the national economy, increased Britten's sense of solidarity with leftist and pacifist opinion. Both viewpoints were strong in England, as well as America, during the depression decade, which was also the decade of Fascist victories in Germany and Spain that presaged the inevitable coming of World War II.

In 1936 Britten wrote incidental music for Stay Down Miner, a play by the Communist writer Montagu Slater (1902–56), produced by the Left Theatre, which took a much more militant line about the labor situation than Coal Face. The next year, he composed a Pacifist March for an equally militant organization called the Peace Pledge Union. He also wrote music for plays by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood for production by the Group Theatre, yet another of the militant political associations of artists that mushroomed during what Auden later called “the low, dishonest decade”14 of the thirties.

In 1939, together with Peter Pears, Britten followed Auden and Isherwood in the wave of leftists and pacifists who emigrated from England to North America as war clouds gathered. After a short stay in Canada, Britten and Pears settled for a while in the environs of New York, where they met and befriended Aaron Copland. Having already collaborated with Auden on a number of projects in England, Britten continued the creative association with Paul Bunyan, the largest work of his American sojourn. He wrote some important instrumental works in America as well, including a Violin Concerto and a Sinfonia da Requiem in memory of his parents.

Auden and Isherwood remained expatriates for the rest of their lives, but Britten and Pears—not without apprehension at the fate that might await them as conscientious objectors—returned to England in 1942, at the height of hostilities. The decision had been made the previous summer. Britten and Pears had gone to southern California for the purpose of reentering the United States from Mexico and thereby qualifying for permanent immigrant status. While there Britten came across an article by the English writer E. M. Forster about George Crabbe (1754–1832), an English poet best known for his grimly realistic depictions of rustic life in the southeastern coastal district of Suffolk, from which he hailed.

Britten, a Suffolk man himself, was seized with homesickness and conceived the idea that he could only fulfill his musical potential in his aboriginal surroundings, in the bosom of (and in service to) his native society. The conviction was abetted when, pursuing Forster's lead, Pears bought an old edition of Crabbe, where he and Britten found a long narrative poem called The Borough (1810), describing life in Aldeburgh, the very town where Britten had purchased a home shortly before emigrating. They immediately began planning the scenario for an opera on its basis.

A Modern Hero

fig. 5-1 Benjamin Britten (at the piano) and Peter Pears; photo by Lotte Jacobi, 1939.

Early in 1942, while Pears and Britten were awaiting the opportunity (infrequent in wartime) to book boat passage back to England, Serge Koussevitzky, acting on Copland's recommendation, performed the Sinfonia da Requiem with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Impressed with its dramatic qualities, he asked Britten why he had never written an opera. Preferring not to mention Paul Bunyan, Britten (as he put it in the Introduction to the vocal score of Peter Grimes) “explained that the construction of a scenario, discussions with a librettist, planning the musical architecture, composing preliminary sketches, and writing nearly a thousand pages of orchestral score, demanded a freedom from other work which was an economic impossibility for most young composers.”15

Later that same year, Koussevitzky's wife Natalie died. She had inherited a tea fortune that had already financed her husband's prewar publishing firm (Éditions Russes de Musique). Now, as a memorial to her, the conductor established the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for the commissioning of major works by composers of all nationalities. Britten was informed that he was to be the first recipient of a Koussevitzky Foundation grant of a thousand dollars. (The next was Bartók, for his Concerto for Orchestra.) That is how Peter Grimes became a reality, and also why Britten's exceptionally prolific career as a composer for the stage only got off the ground in his fourth decade, with his op. 33.

Peter Grimes, the character from The Borough that Britten and Pears chose for their protagonist, had already been singled out by Forster, in his article on Crabbe, as an item of special interest: “a savage fisherman who murdered his apprentices and was haunted by their ghosts.”16 When they read his story in full, Britten and his collaborator found that Grimes, sadist though he was, was not an unmitigated villain. Crabbe had used him, in a fashion more typical of realist writers than romantics, to expose social injustice. “No success could please his cruel soul,” the poet wrote of his fisherman,

  • He wish'd for one to trouble and control;
  • He wanted some obedient boy to stand
  • And bear the blow of his
  • outrageous hand;
  • And hoped to find in some
  • propitious hour
  • A feeling creature subject to his power.

He found the opportunity to indulge his cruelty with impunity thanks to the English workhouse system, which supplied him with indigent orphan boys, utterly without civil rights, whom he could exploit for his own purposes be they legitimate or otherwise. As the Britten scholar Philip Brett has noted, “unlike the typical villain of the Gothic novel, Grimes does not have to resort to kidnapping to place another person under his complete control; he has only to apply to the nearest workhouse.”17 But this implicates society in the crime, as Crabbe makes clear:

  • Some few in town observed in Peter's trap
  • A boy, with jacket blue and woollen cap;
  • But none inquired how Peter used the rope,
  • Or what the bruise, that made the stripling stoop;
  • None could the ridges on his back behold,
  • None sought him shiv'ring in the winter's cold;
  • None put the question—“Peter, doest thou give
  • “The boy his food?—What, man! the lad must live;
  • “Consider, Peter, let the child have bread,
  • “He'll serve thee better if he's stroked and fed.”
  • None reason'd thus—and some, on hearing cries,
  • Said calmly, “Grimes is at his exercise.”

But after his third apprentice mysteriously dies, the town does ostracize the fisherman, who now must fish alone, and does so where no one else will go:

  • There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
  • There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
  • In its hot, slimy channel slowly glide.

Thus Crabbe exposes a double injustice: Grimes's cruel exploitation of his helpless apprentices, and the townspeople's hypocritical disapproval of behavior in which they have all been complicit. The plight of the criminal fisherman who even so is banished unjustly was a theme of attractive complexity to modern artists like Britten and Pears, who were heirs to an even more relativistic notion of responsibility and blame, an even more exacting sense of social justice, and an even more compelling interest in psychological complexities than the prophetic Crabbe. Grimes was, or could be if suitably fleshed out, a character to set beside the similarly prophetic Büchner's Wozzeck, the delinquent yet pitiable antihero of Berg's famous opera, which had made so strong an impression on Britten that he had once nurtured the hope of studying with Berg (to the dismay of his official teachers at London's Royal College of Music). Indeed, Wozzeck would be a model for Peter Grimes in ways that went far beyond the general similarity of their protagonists.


(14) W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939.”

(15) Quoted in Philip Brett, Peter Grimes (Cambridge Opera Handbooks; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 148.

(16) E. M. Forster, “George Crabbe: The Poet and the Man” (1941); Brett, Peter Grimes, p. 4.

(17) Brett, Peter Grimes, p. 2.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Standoff (I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005004.xml