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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)
Richard Taruskin
Allegory (But of What?)

ex. 5-6 Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Passacaglia (Interlude IV), beginning

Britten's and Pears's strong personal identification with the title character has already been cited as a motive not only for composing the opera in the first place, but also for the hefty alterations that distinguish the musical treatment from the original poem. (“Neglect Crabbe,” one critic warned audiences, if they wanted to be able to see the characters “from the composer's standpoint” and really understand the opera.20) That identification is most conspicuous in the libretto when Grimes rejects Balstrode's suggestion that he seek employment as a merchant seaman rather than put up with the difficulties of life in the town, saying “I am native, rooted here/by familiar fields,/marsh and sand,/ordinary streets,/prevailing wind.” Anyone who knew Britten's own circumstances, driven by homesickness from the safety of voluntary exile to the uncertainties of life within a possibly hostile society at war, could recognize these lines as autobiography; and many did.

To think along these lines is to turn the opera into allegory. How one reads an allegory, of course, depends to a considerable degree on what one has on one's own mind. To the American literary critic Edmund Wilson, who happened to catch the first production on a visit to London, the opera seemed an allegory of the war just past. “This opera could have been written in no other age,” he asserted, “and it is one of the very few works of art that have seemed to me, so far, to have spoken for the blind anguish, the hateful rancors and the will to destruction of these horrible years.”21 He saw these dire features embodied in the character of Grimes himself, whose violent nature he read, at first, as symbolizing defeated Germany:

He is always under the impression, poor fellow, that what he really wants for himself is to marry Ellen Orford and to live in a nice little cottage with children and fruit in the garden “and whitened doorstep and a woman's care.” Above all, he wants to prove to his neighbors that he is not the scoundrel they think him, that he really means no harm to his apprentices and that he will make a good family man. But he cannot help flying into a fury when the boy does not respond to his will, and when he gets angry, he beats him; and his townsmen become more and more indignant.22

Whether Wilson really entertained this curious and limited view of the action, or whether he included it in his essay just to offset his final interpretation, is hard to say; but in the end he comes to see it more the way the opera's creators evidently intended:

By the time you are done with the opera—or by the time it is done with you—you have decided that Peter Grimes is the whole of bombing, machine-gunning, mining, torpedoing, ambushing humanity, which talks about a guaranteed standard of living yet does nothing but wreck its own works, degrade or pervert its own moral life and reduce itself to starvation. You feel, during the final scenes, that the indignant shouting trampling mob which comes to punish Peter Grimes is just as sadistic as he. And when Balstrode gets to him first and sends him out to sink himself in his boat, you feel that you are in the same boat as Grimes.23

Not that the reading of an allegory must conform to the author's precise intentions (or even that it can, since we can never be sure that we know the latter). Britten and Pears very likely read Wilson's critique with a mixture of gratitude and bewilderment: gratitude that he grasped something of the social theme and identified as they did with Grimes, bewilderment that he was able to read his own cynically bleak view of “the whole of humanity” into their work. But whether or not one accepts Wilson's reading, or any particular one, some level of allegorical interpretation seems necessary if the opera is to succeed in its moral, and even its musical, objective. For the music has painted Grimes as an innocent man, and yet he perishes as a guilty one. It does not add up, as the critic J. W. Garbutt forcefully argued in an article that appeared almost two decades after the first performance—and it is already a remarkable testimony to the opera's status as a modern classic that debate about its meaning should have continued even that long. As recently as July 2004, in fact, the London Guardian carried an article that refused point-blank either to neglect Crabbe or to consider allegorical readings, condemning the work as “a powerful but an inadvertently immoral opera, that seeks (shades of Lady Macbeth) to justify an irredeemable criminal”24

Nevertheless “the ending is dramatically memorable,”25 Garbutt wrote. Few have disagreed. Grimes's mad scene (Ex. 5-7), which follows upon (and effectively silences) the last orchestral interlude, is a nearly incoherent recitative, accompanied by the offstage voices of the posse calling his name and by a single tuba impersonating a distant foghorn. Whatever rudimentary structure it has is provided by a medley of melodic reminiscences that sum up the action Grimes obsessively recalls. Ellen approaches, offering to take him home; he responds with a hopeless reprise of Ex. 5-1, transposed down a semitone. Finally, Balstrode approaches and, in spoken dialogue, issues the death sentence. Peter disappears in silence. A reprise of the Interlude that opened Act 1 then shows the Borough awakening to a new day.

Joseph Kerman, in one of the earliest American reviews, marveled at the way in which “music is reduced successively to absolute zero”26 as the title character is destroyed. Dramatically memorable, indeed. “But is it dramatically just?” asks Garbutt:

Allegory (But of What?)Allegory (But of What?)

ex. 5-7 Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Act III, scene 2 (Grimes's mad scene)

Had he some real guilt to atone for, the ending would have been meaningful as well as memorable: the tragic inevitability which Crabbe manages to convey as a force behind his narrative would have lent itself to the opera. But in the absence of established guilt, Peter is accepting death merely because of the Borough's desire for revenge. Balstrode at this moment acts as the Borough's executioner; mentally weakened, Peter submits. And the Borough celebrates its easy triumph with its routine performances, in the “cold beginning of another day.”27

Garbutt concludes that the opera succeeds despite the dramatic flaw at its conclusion, owing to the sheer brilliance of Britten's music. “Clearly there is a remarkable musical power in this opera, so dominating our response that we can accept the self-contradictory figure of Peter.” And yet his very critique, premised on his refusal to accept that self-contradictory figure, shows his conclusion to be unfounded. More recent critics, notably Philip Brett, have suggested that there is indeed a level at which the contradiction is resolved (or, more precisely, eliminated) through allegory. But the crucial allegory entailed so touchy and ticklish and unresolved a social issue in contemporary life that (as Ellen says when she finds the apprentice's jersey) it became “a clue whose meaning we avoid.”

That issue is homosexuality: or more specifically, hidden, “closeted” homosexuality, “the love that dare not speak its name,” which was for many, and remains for some, a tormented way of life. Among them were Britten and Pears. That they were “out of it”—social misfits—not only as conscientious objectors but as homosexual lovers was widely known (that is, widely and correctly assumed) at the time of their exile and return. It has been plausibly adduced as one of the reasons for their emigration, along with Auden and Isherwood and many others: “that desire,” as Philip Brett describes it, “so common in young gay men, to seek anonymity and freedom by going to the big city, the far-off country—any place, that is, away from the home where they feel at best half-accepted.”28 And it must surely have contributed to the “tremendous tension” that, as Britten put it in a paragraph already quoted, he and Pears “naturally” experienced at the time of their return from America, and led them to transform their Peter Grimes into “a character of vision and conflict.”

Their apprehension was justified. Homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal in Britain and (as the case of Oscar Wilde so dramatically demonstrated) could be vengefully prosecuted, no matter how eminent the offender. Even when unprosecuted, they could brand otherwise respectable figures with a social stigma. This definitely happened to Britten and Pears. Their musical achievements, and the punctilious discretion with which they conducted themselves in public (no longer so pressingly demanded of homosexual couples by today's society), allowed them to become the world famous recipients of official honors (a knighthood for Pears, a peerage for Britten). But they were never at liberty to acknowledge their relationship: the closest Britten ever came was to refer to Pears in a speech as “a congenial partner” with whom “I like giving concerts.”29 And as their fame grew they were also increasingly the butt of cruel jokes intended to diminish them not only as persons but also as artists.

Such jokes were usually uttered in private. But just as fame could shield Britten and Pears from overt harassment, fame protected their most eminent detractor. Sad to say, the most open, public insults ever addressed to them were delivered by none other than Stravinsky, who in his last years dictated several volumes of memoirs and observations to his assistant Robert Craft, and used them to settle scores not only with many figures from his past but also with many contemporaries, including younger composers whom he had reason to envy. Britten, whose extraordinary public success represented something Stravinsky had possessed in youth but had tried in vain to recapture in later life, was a special object of the old man's taunts. He referred to Britten in print, maliciously, as a “bachelor composer,”30 and even permitted himself a reference to “Aunt Britten and Uncle Pears”31 in a letter that Craft published after his death.

Britten's and Pears's relationship, officially regarded not only as socially deviant but as diseased by the medical science of the time, was an open secret even when not disparaged. It was always among the subtexts that informed views of the works in which they collaborated. Read as part of an allegory depicting the plight of social misfits, Grimes's implicit acceptance of his “guilt” might be explained even without evoking sexuality. But in light of the stigma attached to his creators’ sexual relationship, that acceptance is among the opera's most compelling social themes—one that communicated itself strongly to audiences even without speaking its name. In conjunction with the music, to whose powerful effects Garbutt drew attention, it surely contributed to the opera's lasting hold on the imaginations of listeners. Or as Brett puts it, “the successful realization of so modern a dramatic character is one of the main reasons for the opera's wide general popularity.”32

Brett continues, “it is the special characteristic of the homosexual stigma (unlike that attached to being black or Jewish) that it is almost always reinforced at home and is thus the more readily ‘internalized,’ that is, accepted as valid and to a greater or lesser extent incorporated into the values and sense of identity of the person in question.”33 One who has internalized that shame might indeed regard himself as condemned, like Grimes, not for what he has done but for what he is. In addition to introspection (or the exercise of “common sense”), Brett supported his observations by citing the recent literature of “gay and lesbian” or “queer” theory, which has only existed as such since Britten's death. But in offering a convincing interpretation of the opera's most harrowing and problematical issue, namely Grimes's acknowledgment of guilt, Brett is surely justified in his once alarming, now celebrated assertion that “it is to the homosexual condition that Peter Grimes is addressed.”34 As such an allegory, he further maintains, the work becomes “all the more poignant and relevant to people today,” whatever their sexual preferences or life style; for the social message is all the stronger for its being expressed—nonexplicitly yet unmistakably—in terms of what was in its day a still actively practiced intolerance. The opera thus becomes an indictment of its own contemporary society, not just “the Borough,” and Britten's treatment of what was necessarily in its day a tacit social issue can, by anticipating (or even helping to precipitate) changes in public attitudes, appear in retrospect to have been as prescient or “prophetic,” in its way, as Crabbe's or Büchner's had been. “One of the things Britten's operas (as well as his other works) seem to achieve is an exploration of various issues surrounding sexuality that the composer could not discuss in any other public form,” Brett writes, and he goes on to offer the judgment that Britten's “perseverance in this endeavor is one of the truly remarkable and even noble features of his career.”

That the treatment, though veiled in allegory, was conscious and deliberate can be seen clearly enough in retrospect if we reread Pears's characterization of Grimes (“an ordinary weak person,… classed by society as a criminal”) in the light of his and Britten's “crime.” And if any doubt remain, there is a letter from Pears to Britten, written in February or March 1944, about a month after Britten had started sketching the music, but only published in 1991, in which he reassured the composer that “the queerness is unimportant & doesn't really exist in the music (or at any rate obtrude).”35 For they both knew that the theme of social persecution of homosexuals, however real and pressing, had to remain implicit if the opera was to be received by their contemporaries as bearing a “universal” message about human tolerance.

Armed with these insights, Brett located prefigurings of Grimes's “internalization” of society's condemnation much earlier in the opera than the turning point in the middle of act II. We have already seen what a potent dramatic device Britten made of the musical technique of inversion, turning Grimes's aspiring upward leap of a ninth into a crashing descent to connote the destruction of his aspirations and his doom. The other leitmotif introduced in Ex. 5-1, derived from the music associated with the gathering storm, can also be described, as Brett points out, as an inversion of the “hubbub” motif that accompanies the indignant muttering of the crowd in the opera's opening scene, the inquest Prologue (Ex. 5-8). Nor would it be irrelevant to add in this context, when dealing with a composer as literate and self-conscious as Britten, that the word “inversion” is a frequent code word or euphemism for homosexuality, not only in colloquial speech but also in works of literature (most famously, perhaps, in Proust's monumental novel, In Search of Lost Time).


(20) Desmond Shawe-Taylor, review of first performance, New Statesman, 9 and 16 June 1945; Brett, Peter Grimes, p. 158.

(21) Edmund Wilson, Europe without Baedeker (2nd ed.; New York: Noonday Press, 1966); rpt. in Piero Weiss, Opera: A History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 308.

(22) Ibid. p. 309.

(23) Ibid.

(24) James Fenton, “How Grimes Became Grim,” The Guardian (London), 3 July 2004.

(25) J. W. Garbutt, “Music and Motive in Peter Grimes” (1963); Brett, Peter Grimes, p. 170.

(26) Joseph Kerman, “Grimes and Lucretia,” The Hudson Review II (1949): 279.

(27) J. W. Garbutt, in Brett, Peter Grimes, p. 170.

(28) Brett, Peter Grimes, p.187.

(29) Benjamin Britten, On Receiving the First Aspen Award (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), p. 21.

(30) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Themes and Episodes (New York: Knopf, 1966), p. 101.

(31) Stravinsky to Nicolas Nabokov, 15 December 1949; Robert Craft, ed., Stravinsky: Selected Correspondence, Vol. I (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 369n93.

(32) Brett, Peter Grimes, pp. 194–95.

(33) Ibid. p. 191.

(34) Ibid. p. 187.

(35) Peter Pears to Benjamin Britten, 1 March [?] 1944; Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, eds., Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), p. 1189.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005006.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005006.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005006.xml