Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mont Saint Michel For Earth Day: Where Nature and Man's Most Ingenious Architecture Meet & Spirits Live

In the television adaptation of this blog, there would be a lovely fade from the illustration in this book page to the real thing, just like the opening of Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare."



The drawing is from an essay by Christopher Morely called  "A Sea Shell in Normandy" in the collection of his essays, The Romany Stain, which I have had since high school because my father picked it up in a used book store for me.

The photo is from my iPhone last month.

Although Morely's essay on Mont Saint Michel from 1926 has quietly been a part of my literary life for decades—looking up at me every time I dipped into the collection because it is the first page of the first essay—I had no particular desire to go see it.  Being there in person was a series of random events: I met singers in Assisi last summer, who have been meeting up in Brittany for years for a privately organized workshop that they invited me to join. I said yes without looking into many details, including where the small villages of La Fontenelle (the birthplace of composer Jean Langlais) and Antrain actually are.  Turns out Antrain is a 1/2 hour drive from Mont Saint Michel, which is technically in Normandy, et voila. It was a lovely small emotional connection back to my father, who died a few years after he gave me the book, made more poignant because it was unexpected.


Happy Earth Day: No Man Is an Island, But Mont Saint Michel Is

I visited the Mount driving from Portorson, which brings you to the large car park and from there walked the two miles on the new causeway to the entrance. The tide was extremely low, so I did not experience the "island"-ness, but the relentless, driving rain for two miles gave me the sense of achieving some kind of pilgrimage, and it kept the crowds way down, which astonished the friends I traveled with who had visited when there were wall-to-wall tourists.

Earth Day is a lovely time to consider other pilgrims, new and old, who approach from the small village of Genet, walking across an enormous expanse of mud flats that disappear under high tide.  To do that walk you need to go with a certified guide.  Pilgrims of yore were killed when the high tide came in quickly and swept them away, or they wondered into a quicksand patch, which Morely notes in his essay. This photo beautifully captures the expanse of those plains, and the small humans trekking across to the abbey, seen in shadow.


There is a lot of discussion going on in France now about how/if the tides should be controlled/damned or not. One faction fears that if the they aren't controlled, the amount of silt build-up will actually connect the island to the mainland by 2040, and the Mount will lose its distinctive character. (Photos from this Smithsonian article.)

An American on the Mount

"With the genuine thrill and and tingle of the pilgrim you climb, cricking your neck at the noble sheer of those walls and struts that lean upward and inward to carry to the needle of the spire. You can almost feel the whole roundness of earth poise and spin, socketed upon this stoney boss of peace.

You think of the Woolworth Building. "  Christopher Morely

The Mount's origins are in AD 708 when the Bishop of nearby Avranches saw the Archangel Michael in a dream who told him to built a sanctuary on an existing Mont Tombe, and it was renamed "Mount Saint Michael at the peril of the sea." The Archangel Michael is the head of the heavenly militia. (John Travolta made an interesting Michael in Nora Ephron's 1996 film, although it was odd for the great warrior to be playing Cupid.)

The Benedictines moved into the Mount in the 10th century and it became a great pilgrimage site as the the village grew outside its walls. The abbey continued with various eras of construction over hundreds of years under several patrons.

And it is the construction of the enormous abbey that astounds. From the Mount's info pamphlet:
"Constrained by the pyramidal shape of the Mount, the medieval  builders wrapped the buildings around the granite rock."

From an excellent Smithsonian article:
"But only about half of the church sits solidly on rock; the other half, called the choir, is perched somewhat perilously on top of the two levels of buildings below."

As the builders built up, they had to continue to build down,  creating huge crypts that would offset the upward weight.

Morely: "You saw, I hope, those great columns in the crypt, where the veins of stone rise to their task as smoothly, as alive with living strength, as the cords of a horse's haunch."

I did indeed.  This picture does not do justice to the enormity of these columns.





The cloister is stunning, the Knight's Hall is an amazing expanse, the view from the town below, looking straight up, gives a good sense of the perch, the rock the abbey is sitting on . . .


And Then There Are the Spirits

The Mount has been a very holy place, and then a very unholy place. It was an impregnable stronghold during the Hundred Years War, its ramparts and fortifications able to resist all of England's assaults, which they say lead to the abbey being a symbol of national identity.

During the French Revolution—with the dissolution of the religious communities—and through to 1863, the abbey was used as a prison.

Between the lives of the monks, the killing of English, and the torture of the prisoners, a lot of souls have passed through those towering walls.

Now, the north-south stairs run below the west terrace, which is the main circulation axis of the Romanesque monastery. The stairs are very steep, and for some reason as I was walking up them I stopped to take a picture, and was amazed at what I saw through the iphone:


An optical illusion, surely. If I took one step more, it went away. If I went back a step, it disappeared. It only materialized from one, specific, space.

It was a wonderful interplay of Nature with the genius of human engineering. Or was it . . .

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"He had every gift but length of years" The Irish Know of What They Speak




"He had every gift but length of years" is from Ted Kennedy's eulogy for his nephew, John Kennedy.  I've always thought the same about my dad, who died thirty years ago today, April 16, 1985.

Not as young and tragically as John Kennedy, or his father JFK, but much too young, just as his  children were young adults, long before there were grandchildren to know, or the chance to retire with my mom, or any of those things.

This April has quite a few milestone anniversaries, two of which are an epic overlap: Lincoln shot on April 14, dies on April 15;  and the Titanic is hit by an iceberg April 14 and sinks April 15 103 years ago. Then dad on April 16.  Which happened to be the Tuesday right after Easter, 1985, and the idea of a little miracle of him getting better was floating around my head.

This photo was taken in Eisenhower Park on Long Island, where we had an annual picnic with family and friends.  My mother sang the song "Bicycle Built for Two" to me from my birth; so it was exciting to actually ride on one; and that meant I could be smug about the whole 2001: A Space Odyssey reference of "Daisy, Daisy" when I got to it in college --because I knew the song and had ridden one for years as a kid; and now the next generation is getting their own "Daisy Bell" with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Cal/Skye, which made me think of this photo in the first place. Another instance of why I love pop culture.




Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April 14, 1865: Another Shot Heard 'Round the World



 April 14, 2015: 150 years since that Good Friday when Lincoln is shot in the head by an assassin. He will die in the early hours of April 15.  Some thoughts about Spielberg's film from 2012.


My Thanksgiving is always tied to three other events, two personal, one national: the birthdays of my brother and a dear friend; and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Because it's a fixed day not date, all 3 of these other events are sometimes on Thanksgiving itself, and always within the holidayness: JFK was murdered on November 22. The birthdays are the 24 & 25.

In 1963, Thanksgiving was on the last Thursday in the month, November 28, so it was not tangled into the national mourning, although John John's own third birthday, November 25, was the date of the State Funeral. But when the holiday was moved to the third Thursday, the assassination became a constant faint echo of great loss amid great Thanksgiving for those who listen.

I went to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln the day after Thanksgiving, and so it was caught up in the echo of the Kennedy assassination. It might be at any time, but the fate of the calendar underscored the experience. It reminded me of "the list" that first appeared in 1964 of noted coincidences between the two men, such as "Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who told him not to go to the theatre; Kennedy had a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas."

Some of the facts on the list have been debunked, but the there is still a psychic bond between these two gaping head wounds in our country's history.  It's much more of a connection than with the other two presidents who were assassinated—James Garfield, 1881, and William McKinley, 1901—whose murders go unheralded, certainly unfilmed.

Forced Modernism & Missing People
I was glad to see Lincoln, but I was not emotionally connected to it. Its strivings for the elegiac left me cold, and I'm generally a weeper where Lincoln is concerned. (Which was the case when I visited the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield a few years ago.)

Tony Kushner is being lauded for the script, based on Doris Kearns Goodwins's book Team of Rivals. But I found it filled with forced exposition with an unnatural self-consciousness that pulled me out of the moments it was trying to build.

For instance:

Mary Lincoln says something like, "they'll only remember me for being crazy." Was Mary Lincoln that self-aware? At the end she says something like, "what would they say, a man taking his lady out for a carriage ride on Good Friday." Yes, it's good to remind people that Lincoln was shot on Good Friday (can the man be any more mystical?) but it sounds clunky to me.

I thought the soldiers quoting the Gettysburg address at the beginning was cheesy, extra cheesy that the black solider finishes the line.

The scene with the couple from Ohio? [I can't remember the state] asking about the toll road was overdone in hammering the point that Lincoln really wants to know the woman's opinion on the 13th Amendment "what do YOU think?" But as I said, I'm in the minority about the script.

On the other hand, there is lots of discussion about what historic figures were left out. For me, Frederick Douglas and no mention of Sherman are the top of the list (although I think the one huge conflagration we see for a few frames is the burning of Atlanta). But then, the "story" is so very complex, it couldn't be told if the focus wasn't narrowed, and that means missing people.

Meeting Lincoln. What Would Abe Do?
The thrill of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis. He is the Brady photos come to life, with the better angels of Lincoln's writings for flesh and blood.

Where I find the script is very strong is in telling the complex story of history so clearly. I'm sure there are differing opinions on every specific point, but that notwithstanding, it depicts what a master politician/manipulator the supreme legal eagle was. As others have noted, what seem to bother him most about the South seceding was that it was illegal, plain and simple. A nice recap of this point is from Adam Gopnik.

The part about "history" that fascinates me is that you don't get to tell any of the tidy versions of "history" until you are removed from elements by time.

I went to see the movie in Seaford, Long Island. It was a town badly hit by Sandy, and I wanted to contribute to its economy. On the ticket taker window was a postcard of the Twin Towers, with Never Forget. Five graduates of Seaford High School died in the towers, 3 in the NYFD, 2 in Cantor Fitzgerald. It took me back. I hadn't thought about 9/11 in a while, but it is our always present, living history.

How different would our recent history would have been if we had had a Republican leader the caliber of Lincoln in 2001. The mind reels.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday 2015: And Mad Men's Era Begins Its Descent into TV History


This is not today's table, but a picture of the lovely dining room of the bed & breakfast I stayed in in Antrain, France, for my polyphony workshop. It captures a chic Easter-ness for me, in that effortlessly French kind of way. Happy Easter to all who celebrate (and to the Jews, "nice try"--funny line on Saturday Night Live Weekend Update last night!)

The Madness Starts to End




Today is a unique Easter Sunday in the annals of this Christian celebration because it is also the premiere of the second half of the last season of Mad Men.  Don & company certainly look dressed for Easter, circa late '60s/early '70s. 

As a fan of Burn Notice, I found an interesting comparison between the series when I was researching Michael and Fiona, not Don and Betty/Megan/Suzanne/Midge/Faye, etc.
Burn Notice  made its debut during the first summer of Mad Men (AMC), with .006 percent of its buzz but an audience many times its size. 
Gina Bellafante, Jan. 2009, The New York Times

And that audience size has remained relatively small: 

        'Mad Men' brings prestige, if not powerful ratings, to AMC

        Frank Pallotta for ABC, April, 2015.

What the audience lacks in size it makes up for in passion.  Personally I found the first two seasons excruciatingly slow.  All style, with a very compelling & tantalizing lead in Don Draper and the early, interesting 'who is he?' but overall the storytelling lacked momentum. I enjoyed the later seasons more, but have never loved the series. 

What I love is the community around the series, starting with the live blogging that my good friend Tom Watson and I did at the beginning, way back in 2007 before Twitter took over. I have written 25 posts on Mad Men, covering a lot of pop culture from many angles. And I still eagerly wait for recaps from Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, and for the comments on both sites.

As for Don? Of all the Sundays that Matt Weiner could have brought back MM, it turns out to be Easter Sunday, the very definition of redemption. The series has not explored much of Don's spiritual side, maybe this coinciding signals redeeming of some sort will be a theme for the end of the story.

And of course, we're all very interested in what that final episode will be, how Weiner will end his story, though I am a firm believer in the Wimsatt's Intentional Fallacy: the author is not the oracle. What he intends, is not necessarily what happens, or what a reasonable audience reads. For me,  there is no question that Tony Soprano is dead.  I also believe that Walter White died in that car in New Hampshire, and the eerie, oddly lit last scenes where he visited key people in his life and tried to make amends is in his head as he is freezing to death.

All to say that I don't care as much about the character of Don Draper as I do the ending of one of the most distinct series on the TV landscape.

And because it still is Easter Sunday, I share a picture of my dad, back in his own #MadMen time before the crazy plaids descended. (I seem to be under siege by a very big bow.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday, 2015: Pilgrims & Grief of All the Ages


A country road in the small town of Antrain, Brittany, France, a remnant of the path pilgrims used to take to the nearby Mont Saint Michel (much more about that later). The modern-day pilgrims/sightseers take a different route now. But we are all pilgrims of many kinds throughout our life, with many journeys having nothing to do with religion, as by pure happenstance is beautifully signaled by the telephone poles that visually mirror the crucifix but are only of the mortal world.

I had the privilege of spending the 5th week of Lent with Catholics in Suffolk, England, in Aldeburgh; then Palm Sunday with the Bretons in Antrain; and back with the home team for the Triduum. Worship on the parish level is incredibly nourishing. The nationalities are important, but the Catholic bond is deeper and the shared knowledge of the Mass and what it means is a moment of human connection like no other.

I also happened to be away when the Germanwings plane was deliberately crashed by the copilot. The European coverage was extensive and beyond heartbreaking, from the 16 German teenagers from the same school returning from their cultural exchange in Barcelona, to the mother and daughter from Virginia, Yvonne and Emily Selke.

Then the third American killed was identified, Robert Oliver Calvo.  And that lead me to learn this: he worked for the Barcelona-based design company Desigual.  I have a lovely Desigual coat that I bought in Century One last year. I get many compliments on it, because it is very striking. Now, when I thank the women who stop me in the street to say how much they like it,  I will remember Robert Oliver Calvo, married with 2 children, and his colleague Laura Altimara, who recently married, in my heart. May they rest in peace and their families find consolation—maybe in the great love of the top picture, or wherever they can.



Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Irish Sense of Timing: Happy St. Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's Day, which for many Irish Americans is a mixture of nostalgia and pride. This particular celebration for me is tinged with sadness, as it happens to be the 30th anniversary of the last Paddy's Day my Dad would know.

Even that sadness is very Irish in its nature, as Chesteron once noted:

For the Great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.
 

This post is one of the first I wrote for this blog, with some edits.

I have a bit of Irish blood in the veins, courtesy of my father. He was proud of his heritage and embodied its characteristic traits: gregarious; a talent for storytelling; a decent tenor voice exercised regularly in church; an acquaintance with barley, hops, and yeast; and a deep love of family, like all Brooklyn Irish. He married a lovely Lutheran woman of Swiss/German/Norwegian descent, but that's a story for another day.

When I was at university in Southampton, England, on a college exchange program, I became the first of the clan to visit the old country.

It was a backpacking tour with a fellow American. We had crossed from Fishguard, Wales to Rosslare, Wexford, which meant by the time we got up to Dublin, it was late and cold and dark and we were very tired. We were trying to get to our B&B by metro bus, and weren’t sure which direction to go. So we waited on one side of the street, and when the bus came, the driver said we needed to be across the street to go in the other direction.

So over we went. It was now even colder and darker, we were beyond exhausted and time was dragging horribly. So this is what purgatory feels like? After forty-five minutes of standing in the freezing Dublin air, we finally see the bus coming along. The door opens, and it’s the same bus, same driver—

Huh. Well . . . .what . . .why didn’t you let us on over there?

“Well, you’d been going in the wrong direction, now, wouldn’t you?”

There is some funny logic there (and some toying with the young Americans).

When I told my father that story he laughed and laughed. He had never been to Ireland, but it struck a deep chord with him, reminding him of some of the distinctly Irish quirkiness of his own father and uncles.

Of course I learned what it is to be Irish American from him. Some things just happened organically in daily life,  like the Irish Coffee ritual and the tip that it's the brown sugar that separates the real from the faux.  Other lessons were very deliberate: like the year he hand wrote the words to important Irish songs for me: The Wild Colonial Boy, MacNamara's Band, The Irish Soldier Boy, and the most important, The Wearing of the Green. An important history lesson in itself, as a teenager the last line "For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green," haunted me. It seems around the 1789 Irish Rebellion, the Brits so feared the nationalism of a color that wearing green was high treason, punishable by hanging. More about that here


"O Paddy dear, an' did ye hear the news that's goin' round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground;
St. Patrick's Day no more we'll keep, his colour can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law agin the wearin' o' the Green.

I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand,
And he said, "How's dear old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen,
For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green."


The Gift of a Trip to Ireland
After college I got a job as a copywriter for a travel company, writing the itineraries for the brochures of deluxe escorted tours. An idea popped into my head: I wanted to buy an escorted tour for my parents to see Ireland. Travel had never been part of their lives together. Money was usually tight, and 8 years of college bills was quite a strain. My father never talked about a desire to go to Ireland, but you knew it was there.

With help from my older brother, I found that we could buy my parents an escorted American Express trip. I became giddy at the idea. We would give it to them for Christmas, and the tour we picked was in May. Just perfect.

I bought a Fodor’s Guide to Ireland to wrap-up, and made a HUGE oak tag card. On the cover I put a big paper clock, with hands just before 12, and the words IT’S TIME . . . . (Inside): For you to go to Ireland ! surrounded by photos from the tour brochure. Everything was set.

On Christmas morning we gave the Fodor’s book to Mom to open, and the card to Dad. He seemed quite stunned. He became very quiet as it sunk in that his children had the means and the desire to give him this trip, a desire of a lifetime. Such moments are deeply vivid, and very rare.

And then . . .
And then, everything turned. My father was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer in January, just after New Years. He died in April. The tour went on without him in May.

How cruel. How could God have denied him this trip ? How macabre and eerie my Christmas card: IT’S TIME. Yes, a phrase often associated with your time being up, but not here—-not on a happy Christmas morning, not about a great trip, not coming from me.

To make this all even more heart-wrenching, I had planned a trip myself to Ireland back in December, to go in March. I would be visiting a college friend who was doing post graduate work in Galway.

By March Dad was pretty ill, but it would have been too much of a shock to him if I canceled my trip, and so I went with the heaviest of hearts.  I remember spending a good part of one day crying in a church in Gort, the town nearest to Lady Gregory's Coole Park, where I had made a pilgrimage to visit Yeats's Wild Swans at Coole.

I got home on March 17, and we had the usual family gathering with my uncles/aunts/godparents. My dad was frail, but rallied to get dressed and join the gang. The photo above shows my Uncle John, his best friend of 30 years, at his side.

Dad died almost an exact month later, on April 16, which happened to be Easter Monday.  That was pretty cosmic.

It is only now, 20 years later, [now 30 years later!] that I can see what an Irish end my dad had. It was sad and tragic, yet imbued with that particular Irish sense of death we know from the great plays and poems of O’Casey and Synge, and Yeats: because life is so precious, death comes with irony, some irreverence, a tinge of comedy, and ultimately, hope.

I’ve been to Ireland several times since he died. I’ve got some new great stories to tell, the next time I see him.

The Irish Coffee ritual was not limited to St. Patrick's Day. And though Crosby sang about a "belt of Bushmills," it's from Northern Ireland & these were the days when that mattered. No money to the IRA. So Dublin Jameson it was.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

There'll Always Be an England: Snape, Crabbe, Grimes, & Britten Walk Into a Bar


This is one of those nestling dolls posts . . .

I'll be visiting—what is to an American's ear—the improbably named Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England at the end of the week.

Seems there is a small town named Snape, on the River Alde, near the east coastal town of Aldeburgh, which wiki says has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. And yes, JK Rawlings named Professor Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame for the town.  Now that's a great piece of trivia.

Even more amazing: you can connect Severus Snape to none other than Benjamin Britten, who was born in Suffolk. In 1937 he took money his mother left him to purchase the Old Mill in Snape, nearby to the Snape Maltings complex, and used it as a studio and home before moving to The Red House in Aldeburgh in 1957, which he shared with tenor Peter Pears until Britten's death in 1976.

The Maltings?  Yes, the town had been a center for malting barely for beer production starting in the 1880s when a Victorian entrepreneur named Newson Garrett built the facility.

In 1948 Britten and Pears, along with writer Eric Crozier,  founded an annual music festival, in Aldeburgh. In the 1960s the festival had outgrown its Aldeburgh Festival hall, AND the company that was producing the malt went out of business, and so . . .  Britten put the two things together. He negotiated to have the Maltings building converted into a 832-seat Concert Hall, which was officially opened in 1967 by HM Queen Elizabeth II and has been the prime venue for the festival since.

Snape Maltings is back in the news, because it is being sold to the charity that organizes the Aldeburgh Festival: From the BBC site on March 5:

 "A popular tourist destination on the Suffolk coast is to become a "creative campus" that aims to match the vision of renowned composer Benjamin Britten (pictured above).

Snape Maltings, a collection of retail units, galleries and residential flats, is being sold to Aldeburgh Music. The charity organises the annual Aldeburgh Festival and runs the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Mr Wright said Aldeburgh Music's plans for Snape Maltings would fulfil "Britten's vision for a creative campus with a new level of public engagements".

I got pulled into all of this because I'm attending a conference called Names Not Numbers that uses venues in Aldeburgh and Snape.

But there's more!

Peter Grimes: The Great Benjamin Britten Opera
Britten wrote one of his masterpieces--the opera Peter Grimes---in Snape!

From brittenpears.org: "In 1942, Britten, then living in America, came across an article by the novelist EM Forster on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe. Crabbe’s poem ‘The Borough’ inspired Britten’s first full-scale opera, Peter Grimes, the work that launched him internationally as the leading British composer of his generation and which almost single-handedly revived English opera."

George Crabbe—whom Hazlitt called “a misanthrope in verse” while Byron proclaimed him “Nature’s sternest painter, but the best”—was born in Aldeburgh in 1754, and the poems capture the lives of the villagers.

I saw Peter Grimes at the Met in 2008, and that sent me back to see what my mentor Paul Fussell had said about Crabbe in his go-to Eighteenth-Century Literature: "The Borough is twenty-four verse “letters” that describe a village, from the Church, to its doctors and lawyers, to the middle-class amusement of clubs, and then, halfway through, “turns to the dark underworld of the indigent, the frustrated, the criminal, and the insane.” (Yeah, that’s the part Peter Grimes is in.)

What Fussell liked in Crabbe was the anti-pastoral. While much of English poetry was imbued with happy, passionate shepherds mooning for love— “Come live with me and be my Love/And we will all the pleasures prove”—Crabbe wrote his character sketches of actual, rural agriculture life, and how hard and soul-crushing it really was.

I was surprised at how different the poem is from the opera, but like all creative endeavors, the original idea was transformed to something new.

The poem begins with Peter Grimes and his own mother and father and what we would now call elder abuse:

“How he had oft the good old Man revil’d
And never paid the Duty of a Child.

Nay, once had dealt the sacrilegious Blow
On his bare Head, and laid his Parent low”

Poem Peter is set up as heinous from the beginning, with patricide as one of the gravest of mortal sins. He grows up to be an even darker and more twisted man:

"He wanted some obedient Boy to stand
And bear the blow of his outrageous hand
And hop’d to find in some propitious hour
A feeling Creature subject to his Power."

He finds such a victim, a young apprentice.

“Some few in Town observ’d in Peter’s Trap
A Boy, with Jacket blue and wollen Cap;
But non inquir’d how Peter us’d the Rope
Or what the Bruise, that made the Stripling stoop”

In Crabbe, the town is not a mob, but an indifferent witness to a child in trouble.

“The trembling Boy dropt down and strove to pray
Receiv’d a Blow, and trembling turn’d away
Or sobb’d and hid his piteous face;--while he,
The savage Master, grinn’d in horrible glee;
He’d now the power he ever loved to show,
A feeling Being subject to his Blow."

Poem Peter has already killed 2 boys, when he is at the inquest for another boy, which is where the opera starts its action, and the Mayor says, “Henceforth with thee shall never Boy abide; Hire thee a Freeman.”

Poem Peter is so hated, that no man will work with him. The ardor of fishing by himself turns into nervous exhaustion that decays to madness. In the end he is a writhing lunatic, and confesses to a priest: for months he has seen his father walking on water, with a murdered boy holding each of his hands. The trio will not let him rest.

“Then with an inward, broken voice he cried,
‘Again they come,’ and mutter’d as he died."

Opera Peter is simply a harsh man whom Britten sees as a product of his society; he once described his work as “the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual."

I think Crabbe would have agreed in general with this idea, but his Peter was more of a Bad Seed and less a product of poverty.

The opera introduces the widow Ellen, who tries to reach out to Peter and bring him in from the cold. When she sees the bruise on the new apprentice, all hope for a new future for Peter is shattered. Then the boy falls to his death, and Peter sets out to sea to kill himself, to escape certain death from the townspeople who are now a mob.

I don’t see as much ambiguity in Opera Peter as others do. The beauty of some of Peter’s arias just makes his crime of violence against a child all the more severe—if he can imagine “kindlier homes,” then he should be able to stop torturing a boy. End of story.


Both Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears are buried in the parish cemetery of St. Peter and St. Paul's in Aldeburgh.  I hope to visit when I'm in the neighborhood.