By Gavin Plumley
Benjamin Britten is often considered a severe composer. It is a somewhat myopic view of the man and his work. After all, his first opera was the 1941 American comedy Paul Bunyan. But it wasn’t until 1945 and the premiere of his searing tragedy Peter Grimes that Britten really made an impact. It was followed by an equally intense chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia. In order to impress, Britten wrote serious operas about fundamental issues within society. So the choice to write a comedy next was somewhat surprising. Ringing the changes, Albert Herring first appeared in June 1947. Premiered within the sylvan surroundings of Glyndebourne and set in rural Suffolk, it eschews the death and high drama of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. At its premiere, the critics and cognoscenti felt it was no more than mere entertainment. But nothing is ever quite what it seems. Although conceived as a comedy, Albert Herring is just as focused a study of society’s mores and morals as any of Britten’s operas. And through the smiles and high jinks of Albert’s drunken escapade we learn much about the world in which we live.
It is perhaps most telling that, like Peter Grimes, Britten set his comic opera close to home. Britten was born in the Suffolk seaside town of Lowestoft. Now rather neglected due to the North Sea’s flagging oil industry, it was a smart provincial town back in 1913. His studies took him away to London but Britten remained devoted to his home county. Even while in America during the Second World War, thoughts of England remained. A broadcast by E.M. Forster about the Suffolk-born poet George Crabbe not only inspired Peter Grimes but also prompted a return home, when Britten bought a house near to Aldeburgh. Tapping into the wellspring of his creativity and identity, Peter Grimes proved to be an audacious and personal masterpiece. Its pessimistic look at provincial society was a surprisingly negative theme to explore in the months immediately following the end of the War. Yet despite its cynicism, the opera placed Britten on the international map as performances spread across Europe and into America. Commissions flowed and Britten became the darling of post-War music.
A second string quartet, commissions for orchestral variations (“The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) and a new association with the opera house at Glyndebourne in rural Sussex followed after the premiere of the opera. Britten, keen to preserve individuality, quit the company at Sadler’s Wells where Peter Grimes had first met a dazzled public and made plans for his own English Opera Group. Working with the artist John Piper and the writer and director Eric Crozier, he was going to create his own work on his own terms. John Christie, the owner of Glyndebourne, was persuaded that his pet opera house would benefit from an association with these young movers and shakers, confirmed by the 1946 premiere there of The Rape of Lucretia. Like Grimes, this new opera was a bold tragedy of personal conviction in the face of societal pressure. A theme was emerging in Britten’s work.
The choice of writing a comedy after Grimes and Lucretia offered welcome relief to audience and creators alike. Britten had been pondering an opera based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and had discussed the idea with Ronald Duncan—the librettist of Lucretia—but it was dropped in favour of Eric Crozier’s cheeky new scheme:
“I suggested a comic opera based on Maupassant’s short story, Le rosier de Madame Husson. Britten liked the idea, especially when he saw how easily the action could be translated from Maupassant’s France to his own native coast of East Suffolk. We made a brief sketch of how the story might be adapted as an opera, and, before I quite understood what was happening, it was agreed that I should undertake the libretto.”
Britten worked fast, demanding intense concentration and rapid drafting. By October 1946 (just three months after the premiere of The Rape of Lucretia) Britten was already asking Crozier “How’s Albert?” Inspired by the performances of tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, in Così fan tutte and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at Sadler’s Wells during the war, Crozier and Britten knew that Pears had great comic potential for the central role. Crozier gifted Britten a Penguin Books translation of the Maupassant and, in return, Britten gave Crozier a copy of the libretto of Falstaff. Both were going to learn how to write operatic comedy from the very best.
Britten added to this delightful mixture of Mozart, Smetana and Verdi with his own passion for Suffolk. And not only did Crozier transplant the whole tale from Normandy to seaside England, but everything within the libretto had direct signifiers within Britten’s world: the village of Loxford is an invention, but clearly linked to Yoxford just outside Aldeburgh; Albert Herring is named after a grocer from nearby Tunstall; Lady Billows got her surname from a colleague at the British Council; Florence was the soprano Joan Cross’s maid; Nancy was named after the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans; and Harold Wood is a station on the way from Suffolk to London. It was a roman à clef of a libretto, though no direct comparisons or criticisms were intended. On the surface, Britten’s opera was a loving homage to his rural Suffolk and, with the advent of the motorcar, a landscape and society that was beginning to disappear.
Britten wrote a charming score to match. The children in the village sing variants of folk songs and nursery rhymes. Lady Billows speaks in sub-Elgarian tones, while the local dignitaries, the mayor and the policeman, have all the hallmarks of Gilbert and Sullivan’s parodied Englishmen. On the surface, then, Albert Herring is a delicious comedy about English manners intended for easy consumption after the more difficult tragedies of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. But like Così fan tutte, The Bartered Bride and Falstaff, there is a richer and more important seam that runs through the piece. Britten, as ever, digs beneath the surface. The village of Loxford is clearly a stuffy place. Rules are obeyed and nobody can step out of line. Albert’s mother, in particular, keeps a firm grip on society ways. Obsessed by the ticking of her clock (immediately apparent in the score), she is a rigid unbending moral force within the opera. Albert is desperate to break away.
Despite his ambitions, Albert has no immediate musical personality. While the adults are rigid caricatures—familiar to anyone who knows BBC comedy or The Pirates of Penzance—the young freethinkers occupy a simple and carefree sound world. Albert is caught between them. Sid and Nancy are emblematic of the youngsters’ happy-go-lucky domain. So while Albert is the weary worker in the shop—“I’m sorry, but I’ve got a lot to do”—Sid is outwardly gleeful in his exclamations of “I’m busy too.” Dotted jig-like rhythms in the woodwinds show that nothing can get him down. His innocent love for Nancy is captured in equally uncomplicated terms—albeit with a dash of Englishman’s eroticism. But there’s clearly more to Albert than meets the eye and his Act 1 aria betrays previously unspoken emotions. The interlude after the scene in the marquee similarly portrays a split personality. Following the festivities, the village dance continues, but soon settles into a more existential musical passage. Albert is drunk, having had too much of Sid’s spiked lemonade (with a hint of Tristan und Isolde thrown in by Britten). He boasts and stumbles around the shop, accidentally ringing the bell hanging over the door. He calls out for his mother, even if his inebriated state mocks the propriety she craves. Her foursquare music lurks in the background, but Albert is “blowed if I’m ready for that.” The following scene may, on the surface, be a jokey dialogue between Albert’s good and bad conscience. But the music for “Why did she stare?”—his pondering of Nancy and Sid’s openhearted sincerity—is much more profound. Having seen a way out of the deadlock, Albert seizes his moment and escapes.
After the manhunt, parodying a similar but truly shocking moment in Peter Grimes, Albert returns to the village ready to answer questions. His mother and Lady Billows are shaken by his absence. Capitalising on their disbelief, Albert boasts of his brawls at the Horse and Groom and his night of “drunkenness, dirt and worse.” In an unexpectedly audacious moment, Albert castigates the village and his mother for their repressive force:
You know what drove me,
You know how I could.
It was all because
You squashed me down and reined me in,
Did up my instincts with safety pins,
Kept me wrapped in cotton wool,
Measure my life by a twelve-inch rule—
Protected me with such devotion
My only way out was a wild explosion!
The timpani that had underpinned Mrs. Herring’s questions now drives through Albert’s response. He answers her determination with his own unbending will. For Britten, whose mother had equally mollycoddled him throughout his childhood and early adult life, Crozier’s words must have triggered significant memories. Together, Albert and Britten crave freedom from stuffy domesticity. That nursery life has taken its toll and Albert finds his voice in a highly personalised outburst. For someone who had little individuality to begin with, this is a bold statement indeed.
Heard within the context of the opera as a whole, this moment has particular force. It follows one of the most touching threnodies in all of Britten’s output. The Book of Common Prayer tones of “In the midst of life is death,” the tolling bell and communal mourning prefigure the War Requiem, which followed some 15 years later. Coupled with Albert’s explosion, Britten indicates that, while the impetus for Albert Herring had been farce, the end result was much more serious. Musically, that shift is heard through Albert’s developing musical character. A mirror of the other people in the village, he eventually finds his own voice, as individualized and elegiac as that of Peter Grimes. And like that irrational and tragic figure, Albert speaks for a more liberal world of poetry, ambiguity and wider understanding.
So, although Britten clearly intended a warm and sincere homage to his home, Albert Herring equally points out the flaws in provincial life. It was a comedic exploration of the tensions that lie at the heart of Peter Grimes. Despite that message, many couldn’t see beyond the surface. John Christie, obliged to take the piece for Glyndebourne, was heard damning it in front of the audience on opening night. The critics were equally dismissive. It was “a charade” which offered “no more than a snigger.” Now, thankfully, we realise that Albert Herring is as heartfelt as anything within Britten’s incredible output.
© Gavin Plumley, 2012
Gavin Plumley is a London-based writer and musicologist. He contributes programme notes to opera houses across the globe, including a number on the works of Benjamin Britten. You can read more about his work via his blog www.entartetemusik.blogspot.com.