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The Fromm Institute For Lifelong Learning
FROMM INSTITUTE STUDENT ASSOCIATION
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Thurs., May 17, 2018
Mon., May 28, 2018
Class Begin 04/9/2018
Class End 05/031/2018
Make-up Week 06/04 - 07
Class Begin 09/10/2018
Class End 11/01/2018
Make-up Week 11/5 - 08
Classes meet at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday - Thursday. The Fromm Institute office is open, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
SPRING CLOSED CLASSES
"Music of Britten"
"Writing for Self"
ASSIGNMENT/ WEEK FIVE
Seminar: Benjamin Britten
Professor: Jonathan Bailey
We now arrive at a turning point in Britten’s life and career –- the overwhelming success of his opera “Peter Grimes” which premiered in 1945. It is a work that continues to play in houses throughout the world and provides a powerful introduction to the principal artistic form of his creativity.
VIDEO SHOWING of “Peter Grimes” 9:30 – 12:00 in the Maraschi Room
heart of the cycle 1s a brilliant, frightening setting of William Blake's "The Sick Rose":
O Rose, tho, art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The strings begin with a "natural" open fifth on E and B, which pulses weirdly off the beat. The horn starts on the note G-sharp, forming a clean E-major triad, then falls to a G-natural, darkening the harmony to minor-a heart-sinking effect of a kind chat appears often in Schubert and Mahler. The horn spirals through a circuitous, spasmodic pattern, creeping along in close semitone intervals and then leaping by fourths or fifths. The tenor recites the Blake text in the space of only eight bars, repeating the major-to-minor, light-to-dark shading of the opening. Afterward, the horn reprises its solo, and at the very end the first two notes are played in reverse order, G-natural to G-sharp. Thus, the piece closes in E major. But it is hardly an optimistic resolution; it is the worm's victory. Britten had discovered one of the core techniques of his dramatic language, the use of simple means to suggest fathomless depths.
George Crabbe's poem "Peter Grimes," part of the 1810 collection The Borough, is the story of a vile man. Even in boyhood, Grimes is a horror, spurning, berating, beating, and, it would seem, killing his own father. As a fisherman, he takes to drink and grows viler. He subjects his first apprentice to physical abuse-"He'd now the power he ever loved to show, / A feeling being subject to his blow"-and lets him die in bed, cause of death unknown. A second apprentice, gentle and slender, is abused in ways that sound sexual as well as physical: "Strange that a frame so weak could bear so long/ The grossest insult and the foulest wrong." That boy falls from the mast of the boat. A third dies in a storm. Finally, the residents of Aldeburgh, who have averted their eyes from these incidents. forbid Grimes to hire more apprentices. He floats in his boat through the estuaries, driven mad by the ghosts of his victims. Raving but not contrite, he dies in a bed in the parish poorhouse. The epigraphs at the head of the tale, one from Walter Scott and two from Shakespeare, all contain the word "murder."
When Britten and Pears first talked about a Grimes opera, they imagined a character much like Crabbe's. In some early sketches for the libretto, which can be seen at the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh, the death of the first boy apprentice is described as an "accidental murder" - meaning, presumably, manslaughter. Further, Grimes's relationship with the boy is given a sexual tinge. The fisherman is maddened by the boy ·s youth and beauty: "Love me darn you," he says in one draft. A later sketch has him exclaiming:
Your body is the cat o' nine
Tails' mincemeat. Of a pretty dish
Smooth-skinned & young as she could wish.
Come cat! Up whiplash! Jump my son
Jump (lash) jump (lash) jump, the dance is on.
A little later in the conceptual process, Britten and Pears brought in the playwright Montagu Slater to write the libretto, and Slater, an ardent Communist, cast Grimes as a more sympathetic type, the victim of a closed-minded society. Britten and Pears quickly accepted Slater's ideas. Pears later told the musicologist Philip Brett: "Once we'd decided to make it a drama of the individual against the crowd, then those things"hints of Grimes's sexuality and sadism-"had to go." Pears wrote to Britten in the spring of 1944: "The more I hear of it, the more I feel that the queerness is unimportant & doesn't really exist in the music ( or at any rate obtrude) so it mustn't do so in the words. P.G. is an introspective, an artist, a neurotic, his real problem is expression, self-expression."
In the final drafts of the score, the collaborators can be seen covering up traces of the original conception. More changes were made before publication, new lines drafted to fit the extant music. Grimes's line "You will soon forget your workhouse ways," addressed to the boy, becomes "She [the teacher Ellen Orford] will soon forget her schoolhouse ways."
Grimes's fitful evolution from villain to victim could easily have produced a confusing final impression. But the music is so richly layered that Grimes becomes a fully multidimensional character, whom singers have interpreted in strikingly different ways. Pears, the creator of the role, always portrayed Grimes as a man wounded by his status as a social outcast. The tenor might have agreed with Philip Brett, who read the opera as a "dramatic portrayal of the mechanics of oppression," and specifically as "an allegory of homosexual oppression." The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, by contrast, played Grimes as a damaged brute, one who sways between heartbreaking lyricism and heartless violence. Britten obviously sided with Pears's portrayal, but Vickers's scalding performances pulled out hidden layers of the score.
Everything about Grimes is ambiguous. On first encounter, it looks to be an opera in the nineteenth-century tradition, stocked with arias, duets, choruses, and other set forms. Yet the inherited forms periodically splinter apart or stop short, as if overcome by emotions that the composer knows are too complex to be resolved in song. This is opera that presses constantly at the borders of the genre, whether high or low: it bursts with folk song, operetta and vaudeville tunes, and the vernacular punch of the American musical, and, at the same time, it erupts in twentieth-century dissonances. In many ways, Grimes is an English f,¼zzeck, extending sympathy to an ugly man, using his crimes to indict the society that sired him. Or, as Britten put it, in his no-nonsense way: "The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual."
The scene is set with a bustling, businesslike Prologue. Grimes testifies at an inquest into the death of his first apprentice, who, in this version, dies of dehydration at sea. "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!" cries the village carrier-this tragedy will unfold against accusatory repetitions of the title character's name. Throughout the introductory scene, the music points up fractures beneath Aldeburgh's tidy surface: potential key centers jostle against each other, major and minor triads are clouded over extraneous notes, clotted chords appear in the lower brass.
Britten's psychological precision in setting the English language is obvious from the start. Like Janacek, he purposefully matches his vocal lines to the rhythms of conversation, oratory, and dispute. Notice how he treats a simple little question that the lawyer Swallow poses to Grimes-"Why did you do this?" A prosecutor throwing out this phrase in court would lift his voice a little after the "Why" and emphasize the "did" and the "do," which is just what Swallow does. As the scene goes on, the initial notes of the phrase--think of the first four notes of "Auld Lang Syne" in quick, even rhythm-take on a symbolic function, representing chatter. gossip, rumor. "How long were you at sea?" Swallow asks. "Three days," Grimes replies. At that, oboes and bassoons play the gossip motif twice. staccato and crescendo. Later, it is picked up by all the winds and becomes a driving ostinato, over which the chorus voices its growing suspicions of Grimes. Hatred of the outsider will be the moral focus by which these upright citizens organize themselves.
At first, Grimes is a blurry presence, trying to make himself heard above the din. But his pride, impatience, and belligerence soon show through. "Let me thrust into their mouths the truth itself," he sings. In a duet with Ellen Orford, the kindhearted schoolteacher, he reveals an alternate persona, one of keening vulnerability. There follows Britten s great orchestral evocation of the heaving ocean on a cold gray morningthe first of six interludes in the opera, illustrating different facets of the sea. Interestingly, some of the ocean's motifs have previously appeared in the courtroom scene, characterizing Grimes; he and the sea transmit the same primeval force.
The Borough's residents, seen going about their morning business after the interlude, are a motley lot, their peccadilloes more memorable than their virtues. Auntie, keeper of the Boar Inn, runs a part-time brothel, making her "nieces" available to the men of the town. The selfappointed lay preacher Boles is an incorrigible drunk. The prim, scolding Mrs. Sedley is addicted to laudanum and in need of a refill. When Ned Keene, the apothecary, offers Grimes a new apprentice, the townspeople begin their muttering again; and when Ellen offers to pick up the boy. they implicate her as well, accusing her of "fetching boys for Peter Grimes." Meanwhile, signs of an approaching storm gather in the orches tra, and all but Grimes scatter to safety.
Alone against the elements, Grimes dreams aloud of a future in which he will make a fortune, marry Ellen, and have his revenge on the town. He sings an abbreviated aria of desperate, upward-lunging fervor:
Mat harbour shelters peace
Away from tidal waves, away from storms,
What harbour can embrace
Terrors and tragedies?
An attempted A-major climax is broken apart by a three-note dissonance, starting ppp then growing in volume, in the trumpets and trombones. It moves like a wedge, and it has the effect of cracking the harmony open: we are hurled across the tritone into the E-flat-rninor tonality of the second interlude, the music of the storm itself. Britten offers little in the way of realistic nature painting, instead whipping up a more abstract, contrapuntal tempest. The "What harbour" music dominates the second part of the sequence, reinforcing the impression that this is more a psychic storm than a physical one.
The townspeople have taken refuge at the Boar. Events follow a predictable trajectory from merriment to altercation. They unload their pent-up unease on Grimes, who comes blowing through the door with a vehement orchestral restatement of "What harbour shelters peace?" (The stylistically voracious Britten here borrowed from Gershwin, whose Porgy and Bess he saw in New York in 1942; as Donald Mitchell points out in his multivolume compendium of the composer's letters and diaries, Act II, Scene 4 of Porgy is structured in much the same way, with storm music blowing through an open door.) The hypocritically moralizing Boles accuses Grimes of the unspeakable: "His exercise is not with men but killing boys!" Ned Keene tries to restore good feeling with a round of the song "Old Joe Has Gone Fishing"-an ancient-sounding tune that Britten invented out of thin air-but the good feeling is washed away when the door swings open and Ellen enters with the new apprentice. Strings resume the "gossip" figure and harp on it maniacally until the end of the act.
The storm music flares up even when the door is closed, suggesting once again that Grimes is a storm unto himself. In the margins of Slater's first libretto draft for this scene, Britten wrote: "Climax of storm (+ boy's fear of murder?)." As chromatic scales crash downward in the orchestratwo parallel scales, a whole tone apart-Grimes takes the boy out of the inn and into his world.
Act II begins on a golden Sunday morning. The music is cast in the Lydian mode, with the fourth degree of the scale raised; in this context the flared note suggests an excess of radiance, light glittering on the surface of the water. As the curtain rises, the townspeople are streaming into church, and for once their chatter sounds wholesome. But in the middle of the D-major festivities a B-flat-major triad sounds low in the orchestra. creating a sudden, jarring dissonance. It is anchored on the rounded tone of a church bell. Off to the side of the Sunday procession, Ellen has appeared with Grimes's new apprentice, John.
A magnificent two-tiered sequence follows, worthy of Verdi. The churchgoers sing the hymns and responsories of their Sunday service in the church offstage, while Ellen sits with John by the beach, trying to assuage his fears. Noticing a bruise on the boy's body, she surmises that Grimes's violence is reawakening-"It's begun." She tells John that he has already discovered how near love is to torture. (In a last-minute revision. "love" was changed to "life," spoiling a chain of correspondences in the words and music.) In the background, the chorus sings such lines as "We have done those things which we ought not to have done." Indeed, Ellen shouldn't have let the boy anywhere near Grimes; her misplaced faith in human goodness sets the scene for the coming disaster.
When Grimes shows up, Ellen challenges him about the bruise. whereupon Grimes hits her, accompanied by an orchestral reminiscence of the storm. "God have mercy upon me!" he exclaims, in a downwardplunging, corkscrew-like musical line, and goes away with the boy. "Grimes is at his exercise;' the churchgoers sing, to the same notes on which Grimes sang "God have mercy." Wagner, in the Ring cycle, established a leitmotif system in which recurring melodic figures cue the audience to recall certain concepts and characters. Britten, complicating the Wagnerian idea, attaches two distinct meanings to his leitmotif, one having to do with Grimes's feelings of guilt and the other having to do with the townspeople's condemnation. Their interpretation of the motif inevitably wins out-the church organ gives it moral gravity-and the corkscrew figure takes on percussive, propulsive energy. The townspeople resolve to send out a delegation to determine what is going on in Grimes's clifftop hut, and as they go, they are accompanied by a militaristic thudding of drums: "Now is gossip put on trial ..."
Britten refrains from showing what happens between Grimes and the apprentice as they go back to the hut, but the fourth interlude, a fearsome passacaglia, lets us imagine what the boy is feeling.
Passacaglia form-variations over a bass ground-already had a distinguished history in twentieth-century opera. Berg, in Wozzeck, used it to depict the torturous experiments of the horrific Doctor. Shostakovich, in Lady Macbeth, employed a passacaglia to describe the aftermath of the killing of the kulak Boris. Britten introduced a passacaglia into the gravely sorrowing finale of his 1939 Violin Concerto, which obliquely memorializes the anti-fascist fighters of the Spanish Civil War.
In all these works, the passacaglia suggests murderous or destructive forces at work, and so it does in Grimes, where grim orchestral activity accumulates over repetitions of the "God have mercy upon me!"/ "Grimes is at his exercise" leitmotif. When Britten prepared a stand-alone score for this interlude, he annotated it with more detailed associations, some of which are: "A crisis-a mistake? rough sea?;' "the boy's guilt, depression, loneliness," "tears," "G's comforting," "G's encouraging" (spooky arpeggiated chords for trumpets and trombones), "Boy's efforts to work & please," "fe( ar?)" (fast, snaking figures for high winds and violins), "G threatens;' "The walk up the hill, the boy's terror" (pushy figures in the horns, precipitate upward runs in the winds). The "boy himself" speaks through a halting song on the solo viola-an instrument that often carries autobiographical implications in Britten's music, the composer having played it in his youth.
What happens next is harrowing, particularly when the Passacaglia's programmatic indications are taken into account. John is thrust onstage, Grimes following behind. The boy's mental condition is indicated by the main viola theme and by the music denoting "tears" and "fear." Grimes insists on going ahead with the day's fishing expedition, and rants about marrying Ellen. The "crisis/ mistake" music returns as Grimes shakes the boy, followed by a reprise of the uncomforting "comfort."
As the town procession nears, Grimes threatens further violence unless
John makes a dangerous descent down the cliff: "Will you move or must I make you dance!" (The original libretto reads, "Will you move if the cat starts making love"-as if Grimes is holding a whip.) The Passacaglias "terror" figure shrieks in the strings. As John climbs down, he loses his grip, screams, and falls. Britten notates the scream with the phrase "portamento lento" (slowly sliding tone). The gesture of a descending shriek recalls the murder of Marie in Wozzeck ("Hilfe!"). That echo undermines the "official" interpretation of Grimes as "victim of society": the music comes close to accusing him of murder, in mind if not in deed.
The bloody-minded townspeople arrive, but they see nothing amiss. Commenting among themselves that Borough gossip might have got out of hand, they leave. Captain Balstrode, one of the few who want to understand Grimes rather than condemn him, stays behind to look around. and after a moment he makes a terrible discovery: the boy's Sunday clothes are lying on the floor. The solo viola melody of the Passacaglia is heard, but with its intervals inverted, so that it resembles the pattern to which Boles sang the fateful words "His exercise is not with men but killing boys!" It's as if the boy's ghost were talking.
Act III: night has fallen. A band is playing a barn dance in the Mooe Hall-a tall-chimneyed sixteenth-century building that still stands in Aldeburgh. Outside, Swalow and Ned Keene are pursuing the coquettish nieces. The rector, sampling the racy atmosphere before going back to the cultivation of his roses, sings a brief but infectious song with the refrain "Good night, good people, good night." There is even a jokey cameo by Dr. George Crabbe, Grimes's creator. Amid the merrymaking. the awful Mrs. Sedley skulks in, trying to interest the townspeople in her theory that Grimes has murdered his apprentice:
In midnight's loneliness and thrilling quiet
The history I trace, the stifl-ing secret
Murder most foul it is, and I'll declare it!
Mrs. Sedley is a great detective in her own mind, a sort of diseased Miss Marple who has been waiting for years for a crime to be committed on her doorstep. A chromatic bass line makes her sound like a ridiculous comic-opera villain, but a sliver of militant trumpet signals her ability to wreak havoc. The irony is that Mrs. Seciley is actually right: something is amiss with Grimes. But the justice that she seeks is vindictive rather than redemptive.
Ellen enters holding John's torn jersey, which Balstrode has found on the beach below the cliff. The schoolteacher knitted the garment herself, in an effort to create a perfect icon of childhood dreams. Now her handiwork tells a chilling tale-it is, she says, "the clue whose meaning we avoid." As she sings, she is accompanied by gauzy string chords and strummings on the harp, in the style of a Renaissance lament. The studied archaism of the aria suggests that Ellen is still averting her eyes from the truth about Grimes, even with the clue in her hand. Her role as an unwilling accessory in Grimes's actions is even hinted at in the musicwhen she and Balstrode declare, "We shall be there with him;' they sing to the tune with which Grimes threatened the boy.
Having overheard Ellen and Balstrode's exchange, Mrs. Seciley goes victoriously to Swallow, bellowing, "This is official." She seizes control of B-flat major, the key of the introductory courtroom scene, and the others rapidly join her there, intending now not to investigate Grimes but to convict him: "Who holds himself apart, lets his pride rise / Him who despises us we'll destroy!" They are a kind of Un-Anglian Activities Committee, bent on personal destruction. The drunken vigor of the dance turns malevolent; Mrs. Seciley's formerly creaky chromatic line roars in the brass. To close, the chorus sings "Peter Grimes!" nine times fortissimo, eventually shortening it to a triple-forte "Grimes!" But they search in vain for their quarry. During the final sea interlude, the scene changes to the empty beach, where Grimes has fled.
But is he alone? At the beginning of this most mysterious of the interludes, a flute motif recalls a little flurry of notes that played as Ellen sat with the boy on Sunday morning. Other instruments join in with "Grimes is at his exercise" as the orchestra collectively plays a massive chord of E-the key in which the viola sang its ghostly song at the end of Act II. As in the original Crabbe poem, Grimes seems surrounded by the ghosts of his victims. Indeed, in the "mad scene" that follows, he sings fragments of his previous music and talks to the two boys who have died (and even to a third whom he has not yet met). Meanwhile, the chorus continues to chant his name offstage, seventy-nine times in succession: "Grimes! ... Grimes! ... Grimes! ... Grimes! ... Grimes! ... Grimes! ... "
The man's sense of self breaks down, and all he can do in the end is to sing his own name in response, in a drawn-out melisma. He sees himself only as the town sees him. Balstrode and Ellen appear, but Grimes does not hear them. Balstrode stops singing and simply talks: "Sail out till you lose sight of the Moot Hall. Then sink the boat. D'you hear? Sink her. Goodbye Peter."
As a new day dawns, the music of the first interlude returns. The residents of the Borough go about their tasks. Boles and Auntie watch a boac sinking out to sea. "W hat is it?" Auntie asks. "Nothing I can see," Boles replies. "One of these rumours!" Auntie replies, to the tune of "Grimes is at his exercise." With the outcast banished from its midst, the Borough appears to have forgotten all about him. The chorus sings again of the uncaring majesty of the sea: "In ceaseless motion comes and goes the tide ... it rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep." Dense chords, like the ones that played when Grimes first walked into the courtroom, grunt in the bass. An ocean of sound, neither dark nor light, neither major nor minor. marks the fisherman's grave.
Britten's Cold War
The premiere of Grimes took place at the Sadler's Wells Opera Company on June 7, 1945. The ensuing triumph changed British music and Britten's life. Interest in the opera grew so intense that late in the run a London bus conductor entered the title into his litany of destinations: "Sadler's Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman!" European and American performances followed. In America the open played first at the Tanglewood Festival and then at the Metropolitan Opera. The composer's face appeared on the cover of Time. Even Virgil Thomson was forced to admit that Peter Grimes was "not a bore."
From that storied first night onward, Britten was England's most celebrated living composer. He bore his national duties without difficuly composing prolifically until his death a little over thirty years later. He went on to write thirteen more operas, equaling the output of Richard Strauss. His selection of literary sources was dauntingly ambitious, encompassing a Roman tragedy by the French playwright Andre Obey (The of Lucretia, 1946); a social comedy by Guy de Maupassant (Albert Herring. 1947); a multilayered seafaring story by Herman Melville (Billy Budd.
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