One such town is Aldeburgh where the fishing still goes on, though through the years it’s turned into a quiet enclave where retired air commodores play golf and live to great age, swimming daily in the ice-cold water.
Aldeburgh is also the home of Benjamin Britten, and the hub of a substantial industry devoted to the composer. Along with the surrounding coastline of East Suffolk, it’s now “Britten country,” much like “Thomas Hardy’s Dorset,” or “Jane Austen’s Bath.” His music is its soundtrack: Walk onto the beach and you can almost guarantee that someone will be whistling “Peter Grimes,” the Britten opera that takes place there. And particularly now when England and a fair part of the world are celebrating the centenary of Britten’s birth.
The national importance of this celebration is apparent from the way it features this month on an English coin, an English stamp and with centenary concerts to the point of saturation. Through the coming weekend music-lovers by the coachload will descend on Aldeburgh and on Lowestoft, another fishing town just up the coast where he was born on Nov. 22, 1913, for a grand commemorative festival. The BBC will be in residence, broadcasting day and night. The house where Britten lived, already something of a shrine, will be en fete and overwhelmed by visitors. And the anniversary day itself — a Friday — will be the focus of a nationwide project in which 400,000 children will sing, at more or less the same time, the composer’s “Friday Afternoon Songs.” An extravagant gesture, years in the planning.
But then, Britten is arguably the greatest composer England has ever produced, Purcell and Elgar notwithstanding: Someone who reconfigured English musical life with a professionalism that had barely existed before, and who built a new tradition of English opera from almost nothing.
That he did this not from London, which he never liked, but from a small provincial town in Suffolk makes it all the more remarkable. He may have mocked Suffolk provincialism in his opera “Albert Herring,” but he loved and needed it. Whether it loved and needed him, though, was another matter. Great men in small communities can be an awkward fit, and there were always those in Aldeburgh who were hostile to the presence, personality (and no less, homosexuality) of the composer in their midst.
After his death, proposals for a Britten statue in the town were regularly vetoed. Controversy raged when one of England’s best-known visual artists, Maggie Hambling, finally obtained permission to create an abstract sculpture to his memory further down the beach. And to this day, the local information board on the Aldeburgh seafront declaring the town’s distinguished residents includes him almost as an afterthought — with the description “talented composer.” It’s so much of an understatement that it’s an insult. Probably intended.
But like his own operatic creation Peter Grimes, he felt himself “rooted” (as the libretto has it) in this windswept stretch of the east coast, whatever its small-town inhabitants felt about him. And the insularity of small-town life was part of the deal. In Lowestoft, his father had been the local dentist and his mother taught piano: They were pillars of the community. And Britten’s growing realization that he was gay, an outsider, only made the idea of community more attractive to him. He wanted to belong, and that want stayed with him all his life — challenged though it was by his friend W.H. Auden, who wrote poems encouraging the young Britten to submit to the “demands of disorder” and a more bohemian existence.
Britten turned the poems into music but chose not to follow their advice. Bohemia was not his habitat. Instead he settled in an old, converted mill at Snape, inland from Aldeburgh, and then moved into the town itself — buying a house directly on the seafront where, with the wash of the tide and the cry of gulls in his ears, he generated sea music like “Billy Budd” until increasing fame and people staring through his windows prompted relocation to a more secluded area by Aldeburgh’s golf course. There he stayed until he died in 1976, when he was buried, modestly, in Aldeburgh churchyard. Ten years later his life-partner Peter Pears was buried next to him. And their two matching, slate-grey headstones have become a necessary stop for music pilgrims — there are many — leaving flowers.
What make the Britten/Aldeburgh ties so strong, though, isn’t only that he lived and died there, or even that he incorporated its geography, people and sounds into his work. It’s that a large proportion of the work was written for this place. Even the operas.