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The Bleak Little Place Where Britten and Sebald Intersect

Pay a visit to The Rest Is Noise where Alex Ross wrote recently about Benjamin Britten’s beautiful and powerful opera Peter Grimes and the bleak, windswept landscape around Aldeburgh, which repeatedly inspired the composer. As Ross points out, this is the same territory covered by W.G. Sebald in his book The Rings of Saturn.

The bounding marshbank and the blighted tree;
The water only, when the tides were high,
When low, the mud half-covered and half-dry;
The sunburnt tar that blisters on the planks,
And bankside stakes in their uneven ranks;
Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
As the tide rolls by th’ impeded boat.

From Peter Grimes by George Crabbe

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. An obvious connection, now that you point it out. Does Sebald actually mention Crabbe anywhere? I can’t think of an example.

    February 27, 2008
  2. I don’t believe Sebald ever mentions Crabbe. It’s a shame.

    February 27, 2008
  3. Crabbe was friend of Fitzgerald I think and he is mentioned thus in Rings of Saturn – only the second book I have read by Sebald – he is a great writer.

    Peter Grimes is a great opera.

    March 14, 2008
  4. If Sebald ever could have lacunae then Britten would be the only one in THE RINGS OF SATURN… I wrote the following myself for a recent production of PETER GRIMES at the Grand Théâtre de Genève…

    It was in Lowestoft, the furthest point east, that Benjamin Britten was born on 22 November 1913. The large Victorian villa at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road where the composer lived is the picture of bourgeois recline – it is now a hotel. But the modest dignity of Britten’s family home until 1933 is not apparent throughout the town. Positioned at the end of a slow winding railway line from London, Lowestoft has faded. The fishing has dried up, and the gas and oil works, which provided the main source of employment in the town, were closed in 2003; the holidaymakers now choose nearby Great Yarmouth (a tawdry affair) or stately Southwold (where the Prime Minister recently holidayed). In W.G. Sebald’s 1995 travelogue Die Ringe des Saturn, Lowestoft is depicted in palpably grey tones. It is little surprise that Britten held the town in low regard, yet its bleak position on the precipice of the grey expanse of the North Sea impregnated his memory. Britten escaped home and the pressures of the Second World War for America. But there, as a gay man conscientiously objecting to fighting for his country, he felt equally estranged. Britten began to long for the bleak beauty of his Suffolk origins. It was then he heard E.M. Forster during a broadcast for the radio programme The Listener, in which he spoke about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe and his poem The Borough. Not only did this provoke Britten to investigate Crabbe’s work (and begin the writing of Peter Grimes), but he became resolute to return to Suffolk. Prior the war, Britten had bought a windmill in Snape, in the Alde Estuary, using money left to him by his Mother. This peculiar home, into which the composer moved in April 1938, clearly had some pull on him. Returning from America he and his lover Peter Pears set up home here where Britten began to muse more fully on Crabbe’s pugnacious fisherman Peter Grimes.

    May 15, 2009
  5. gavin, that linking of Sebald and Britten was lovely and pertinent. Sebald’s concern for the invisibilisation and marginalisising of gay people is often neglected or mentioned only in passing; or one critic said it was usually mentioned “obliquely”. this saddens me; there is nothing oblique in “Dr. K Takes the waters at Riva”, or Ambros and Cosmo or the comments on Casement(“Rings of Saturn”).

    I love the pic at the end of chapter 2 of “Rings of saturn” of Lowestoft station, with its original maroon British railways signage; when I went a few years ago the station was still there and still in its sebaldian, semi-derelict, roofless state.

    Suffolk does have a strange, bleak empty beauty and makes me think lof the music of Flemish composers like Meulemans. Feel free to email me if any of these comments interest you or comment on my blog itself-decayetude(google general search finds it), where I have made a posting on “Dr. k takes the Waters”. Thx for ur lovely comments. Steve Benson

    July 30, 2010
  6. Ron Williams #

    Crabbe is mentioned on p. 206 of “Rings of Saturn” as a friend of Fitzgerald. But I do think it odd that Sebald in his wonderful book gives no mention of the Britten/Pears festival at Aldeburgh – that collaboration surely fits somewhere in that landscape.

    March 18, 2019

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