On the trail of Britten's Peter Grimes
Postcard from Aldeburgh: a look at the landscape that inspired the opera.
29 June 2011 at 1.04pm | 1 Comment
Peter Grimes is a rare masterpiece of English opera, suffused with an almost overwhelming sense of place; the salty sea air and dark stormy light of Suffolk on the east coast. Its inspiration is Britten’s home town, the unique coastal settlement of Aldeburgh. If you have seen the opera, and never been to the landscape that inspired it, here is a Peter Grimes Trail to inspire you to head East one stormy summer afternoon.
Peter Grimes Trail
1. Aldeburgh Parish Church: The medieval church of Saint Peter and Paul looks out to sea, with an unusually tall 14th-century bell tower once used as a key navigation point by sailors. Britten’s body is buried in the church’s Lawn Cemetery. A simple slate headstone marks his grave, which stands next to that of his partner the tenor Peter Pears, who first sang the title role of Peter Grimes.
Inside, near the organ, is a bust of George Crabbe, whose poem ‘The Borough’ inspired Britten to write Peter Grimes. The church was also the venue for the first concert of the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, and for many notable performances since. Near the bust is a stained glass window by the artist John Piper in memory of his friend Britten.
2. The Moot Hall The prologue of Peter Grimes is set in ‘a room inside the Moot Hall, arranged for a coroner’s inquest’. The Moot Hall is Aldeburgh’s oldest building after the church and has been the centre of civic life in the town for more than 450 years. Aldeburgh Town Council still meets in its first-floor chamber, which also houses Aldeburgh Museum. Facing the Moot Hall is the Mill Inn, which also dates from the 16th century and is today one of several fine Aldeburgh public houses that are altogether more salubrious than The Boar (the fictional inn in Peter Grimes where the townsfolk meet to gossip and carouse).
3. Scallop by Maggi Hambling: The interludes in Peter Grimes famously evoke the Aldeburgh shore in all its moods. Its shingle beach was a source of inspiration to Britten throughout his career. On the shingle north of the town, towards Thorpeness, is the giant metal sculpture of a shell, Scallop, a tribute to Britten by the Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling. The four-metre high stainless steel structure is composed of two fractured and interlocking scallop shells, pierced with words sung by Grimes towards the end of the opera: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’. It is a wonderful place to sit and listen to the sound of wind and sea and waves.
4. Stop to eat: The walk between the Scallop and the Moot Hall takes you past the huts of the few fisherman still working out of Aldeburgh. You can buy freshly-landed fish from them, or ready-cooked at either of the two fish and chip shops along the High Street.
5. The Red House: Here, off leafy and secluded Golf Lane, is the house where Britten and Pears lived and worked from 1957 until their deaths. Today it is the home of the Britten—Pears Foundation, which welcomes visitors to to gain new insights into Britten’s music in the place where much of it was written. Visitors can browse an exhibition on Britten at work, book onto guided tours of the house, and enjoy the extensive gardens. Be quick – you only have until the end of August to visit; the house is shortly to close for a major building project (due to reopen in 2013).
6. Where to stay: The Old Mill, Snape: Peter Grimes was composed while Britten was living at a converted mill in the village of Snape, just up the hill from the Maltings that he would later turn into a world-class concert hall. The Old Mill is not open to the public, but you can in stay two separate cottages on the site.