Britten’s country vicar

Compared to the number of clergy characters in British fiction of the last century, there are very few indeed in opera. One, however, appears in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring (1947). And, given the various attempts both to stress and downplay the strength of Britten’s attachment to the Anglicanism of his youth, the vicar of the fictional Suffolk village of Loxford is a useful point from which to view Britten’s treatment of the established Church of England.

I don’t propose here to analyse Britten’s religion in any depth, since there are several such accounts already. I would note only the creative tension between Britten’s friendships with figures such as Walter Hussey (and the small but important corpus of religious music) with readings of Britten that stress his status as outsider, a gay man in a country in which homosexuality was illegal until he had reached near old age. I would argue that Mr Gedge is at once a character with which Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier have some sympathy, but who by virtue of his office is integral to the repressive society in which Albert has been trapped.

Loxford is of course a lighter, more comic sketch of the same social forces in lockstep that appear with such terrifying effect in Peter Grimes; the Borough has its own vicar, the Reverend Horace Adams. This is the Protestant England of 1900, in which poppies are too Roman Catholic to be used to decorate the church; Albert is presented with a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as Gedge exclaims:

The Bible, Shakespeare, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs…
Three cornerstones of our national heritage!

Gedge is obsequious to the formidable Lady Billows, a relationship with overtones of that between Austen’s Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourg. He, as vicar, is part of the committee, along with the mayor, the schoolmistress and the superintendent, that meets to assess the virtue of the young people of the village: aristocracy, church, school and town together as monitors and enforcers of what we are supposed to read as a stifling conformity. To be sure, this is the dominant note of the opera as a whole.

But there are signs that Britten does not regard the vicar wholly negatively, such as the shimmering, luminous music to which Britten sets the vicar’s musing on the nature of virtue, which, ‘says Holy Writ’, is:

Grace abounding whensoever, wheresoever, howsoever it exists.
Rarer than pearls… rubies… amethyst,
Richer than wealth… wisdom… righteousness! (Act One, Scene One)

Although it is obscured by productions that cast Gedge as an very elderly man, there is also the moment in which he and the schoolmistress Miss Wordsworth, inspired by the signs of spring around them, duet with lines from the Song of Songs, that most spring-like and indeed erotic book of the Bible. Here is a glimpse of an idealised Christian world in which virtue is no deadening renunciation of the world; Christian relationships need not entail a denial of the flesh.

‘And lo! the winter is past…
‘The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth… (Act One, Scene One).

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