Hypocrisy, class and faith in Britten’s Borough

Whether or not one enjoys Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, its significance is hard to dispute. Premiered in London just a month after the declaration of victory in Europe in 1945, on June 7th, it represented a rebirth. The opening night, thought the Picture Post, ‘may well be remembered as the date of the reinstatement of opera in the musical life of this country’, and to Britten and his collaborators it confirmed both the need and the appetite for contemporary English opera. Some slept on the pavement outside the Sadlers Wells theatre to be sure of their place in the auditorium on the opening night; others came back for all eight of the first performances.

Sadlers Well Opera Books, No.3 (1945), issued for the London premiere. It contains essays by Britten, Montagu Slater, Edward Sackville-West and E. M. Forster.

But its importance was not merely musical. In less than a month the British people would reject Winston Churchill, despite his record as war leader, and elect a Labour government on the promise of a different kind of rebirth: a new society; a rejection of the memory of the inter-war years and of the Conservative governments that dominated them. For a moment, which in fact continued for several years, the social and moral settlement of the 1930s was at a discount, and newness, progress at a premium.

Though the opera is ostensibly set around 1830, the invitation to read it in contemporary terms is irresistible. Most readings have centered on the person of Peter Grimes, as an individual driven to self-destruction by the Borough, the society in which he was trapped, unable to realise himself. Britten and Pears themselves in later life tried to connect the sensitive, conflicted Grimes to their own status as creative artists, and as conscientious objectors to the war; later critics have come to focus more on a queer Grimes as a reflection of Britten’s own status as a gay man in a society which criminalised homosexuality. However configured, though, this opposition of individual and society in readings of the opera has obscured some of the complexity within the Borough itself.

Had the opera developed differently, this might not have been so. The libretto, by the socialist poet and activist Montagu Slater, was derived from verse by the eighteenth century clergyman poet George Crabbe. Both Crabbe and Slater were rather less concerned with Grimes’ interior life than the completed opera is, and more with the social conflict within the Borough. Here I want to look at two of the characters in Slater’s Borough, to reveal some of the religious and social complexities in play in the opera: nuances of class and faith that have become obscure to modern listeners. If the reception of Grimes was indeed part of an appetite for a new society, what, in fact, was to be discarded? The two characters are the Methodist lay preacher Bob Boles, and the Rector, Mr Horace Adams

Bob Boles, written by Britten as a volatile, frenetic tenor, is one of Slater’s fishermen, the ordinary working men oppressed by the bourgeoisie of the Borough. And his voice is a moralistic, censorious one, a stereotype of a certain kind of English nonconformity. Slater here was surely influenced by his own background in Cumbria, where his father was a Methodist lay preacher. (Slater’s wife Enid remembered her father-in-law as ‘one of those awful Methodists – on Sunday he pulled all the blinds downs [and] you weren’t allowed to read anything but the Bible.’ It was ‘ghastly’, and Slater left it for Oxford ‘very thankfully’, she thought.) Boles denounces Auntie, the landlady of the Boar, the local pub, whose ‘vats flow with poisoned gin’; the Boar is also a house of ill repute, as Auntie’s ‘nieces’ comfort the Borough’s menfolk: ‘God’s storm will drown your hot desires!’, Boles warns. And Boles is central to the hostility to Grimes that eventually boils over in Act III, as he goes with the mob to hunt Grimes down: ‘This lost soul of a fisherman must be shunned by respectable society!’ Grimes has sold his soul, and fears the flaming sword of judgment.

Later, in Act 2 scene 1 inside the Boar, we are invited to see Boles as a hypocrite, as he fails to hold his drink and drunkenly demands the ministrations of the nieces for himself. But Boles is also conscious of his class and of social ill, in ways that must have resonated in post-war London. The doctor, Crabbe, we never hear speak, but Boles tells us the regard in which he is held: ‘he drinks “Good health” to all diseases!’. (The inequality of access to healthcare was vital in securing support for the National Health Service in 1948.) At the heart of the opera is the brutality of the conditions in which men and apprentices had to work, and the absence of the kind of social safety net that the reforming Labour government was to create. At the prospect of workhouse boys being bought and sold, Boles exclaims ‘Is this a Christian country? Are pauper children so enslaved, their bodies go for cash?’ He will speak his mind, as the system concerns everyone: ‘this prentice system’s uncivilised and unchristian!’ The coming storm is the judgement of God on an iniquitous society: ‘God has his ways which are not ours: His high tide swallows up the shores. Repent!’ Few in the Borough accepts Boles’ understanding of providence, but they recognise the injustice; we are to read him as the voice of a genuine class interest, alive and well in Slater’s conception of contemporary England.

Slater’s libretto, then, captures the tone of a certain kind of popular Christian moral conscience, which had waned considerably by 1945. But it also pinpoints an antagonism between ‘Methody’ Boles and the established religion that the Reverend Horace Adams represents. It is an antagonism that is borne both of class resentment and specifically religious feeling; powerful enough to influence elections a century ago, it is hard now to spot with an untrained eye. On Sunday morning, the Methodist Boles is not at prayer in the parish church, but watching as Grimes and his love Ellen Orford realise that their bid for respectability has failed. As the whispers against Grimes grow (in the video excerpt below), Boles calls bitterly for the parson: ‘where’s the pastor of this flock? Where’s the guardian shepherd’s hook?’ While the parson and his flock ‘worshipped idols there / The Devil had his Sabbath here’. It is clear where Boles thinks the moral centre of the Borough lies, and it is not with those in the ‘church parade’ after prayers end. The rector is far too ready to ‘ignore, growing at your door, evils, like your fancy flowers.’ (The image of the country parson in delicate repose in his garden was a common one indeed, and comes direct from Crabbe.)

As the mood sours and the chorus cry out for the parson, fired by Boles, Adams asks ‘is it my business?’ Hitherto we have seen little of him, save for a cheery greeting in the opening scene. Now he is forced to hold an impromptu inquest into Grimes’ supposed mistreatment of his apprentice, interrogating Ellen as the crowd continues its hostile commentary. ‘You planned to be worldly-wise’ he tells Ellen as she speaks of her hope of redemption with Grimes, ‘but your souls were dark’. Reluctantly Adams leads a party of inquiry to Grimes’ hut (followed by the crowd), which they find empty yet ‘reasonably kept / Here’s order. Here’s skill’. Another of the well-to-do draws the moral: ‘Here we come pell-mell / Expecting to find out – we know not what. / But all we find is a neat and empty hut / Gentlemen, take this to your wives / Less interference in our private lives.’ Nothing to be done, Adams supposes; it would not do to egg people on too much.

Britten was first alerted to Crabbe by an essay by his friend E.M. Forster, published in The Listener in 1941, which Britten thought sufficiently important to have it reprinted in the booklet accompanying the premiere (illustrated above). It is not often remarked, given the relatively minor place given by Britten and Slater to the character of the rector, that he looms rather large in Forster’s essay. That said, Forster and Slater are agreed on his fault, which is weakness. He is a man ‘whose constant care was no man to offend’ (the line is Crabbe’s); who ‘valued friendship, but was not prepared to risk anything for it’. Crabbe’s epitaph for him is damning: ‘They who knew him best, proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest.’ At play in his garden, ‘no trifles failed his yielding mind to please’.

And it is in his pusillanimity, his readiness to hope that the emotions stirred in the Borough will simply regulate themselves, that we’re invited to see Adams in the worst light.

In Act III, a few days later, he, Crabbe and the group of burgesses excuse themselves from the dance at the Moot Hall, though the whispers have returned, not least from Mrs Sedley, one of his own flock. ‘I looked in a moment’ he sings, and ‘the company’s gay / With pretty young women and youths on the spree.’ Whether oblivious to or afraid of what the night holds, he retires to his house, to light, trivial music (a hornpipe, in fact) that jars, and is meant to; it is grotesquely carefree when framed by the rest of the score. Good night, he bids them all, ‘don’t let the ladies keep company too late! / My love to the maidens, wish luck to the men! I’ll water my roses and leave you the wine.’

Now without any of the better sort to moderate the atmosphere as it darkens, a mob soon assembles to hunt Grimes down, among which is Boles. Adams has refused the chance to try to restrain the mob, to act as peacemaker to the whole parish. And in the morning he walks to church for morning prayer (according to the directions in the published libretto), as on any other day, while the waters close over Grimes’ boat in the distance. What is that in the distance, people ask, a sinking boat? ‘Nothing I can see’ says Boles; Grimes is gone.

Where Boles’ religion is hot, vital (if hysterical), Adams’ is formal, complacent, and in the last instance unable to act. In the religious life of the Borough, the Rector is the Ego to Boles’ Id. In the end, it is the Id that is overwhelming, but both are complicit in Grimes’s destruction. As Peter Garvie observed in 1972, the Christianity in the opera is ‘uninfluential for good’. Neither provides a path to peace for the community or to repentance and redemption for Grimes. In 1945, on the cusp of a new start, neither variety of English religion seems to merit its place in the new Jerusalem.

[The essays by Peter Garvie and E. M. Forster are both reprinted in the Cambridge Opera Handbook to Peter Grimes. The production shown above is a 1969 television film, with Pears in the title role, Gregory Dempsey as Boles, and Robert Tear as Horace Adams.]

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The Devil’s music: a review

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‘The swinging Dean peps up the Psalms’: Walter Hussey and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms

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Evangelicals, culture and the arts

[This is an edited extract from my essay in the Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.]
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One evening in the early 1960s Michael Saward, curate of a thriving evangelical Anglican parish in north London, went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the aged Otto Klemperer conduct Beethoven. As the Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng played the Violin Concerto, Saward unexpectedly found himself

‘sitting (or so it seemed) a yard above my seat and experiencing what I can only describe as perhaps twenty minutes of orgasmic ecstasy. . . . Heaven had touched earth in the Royal Festival Hall. . [It was]  . .  a taste of [God’s] work as creator of all that is beautiful, dynamic and worthy of praise . . . speaking of his majesty in the universe which he has made, goes on sustaining, and fills with his life force, the Holy Spirit, who draws out of humanity an infinite range of talent, skill and glorious creativity in artistic works.’

Saward’s words were part of a memoir and not a work of theology, but they challenge many received views of the relationship between evangelicals and the arts. Here was a graduate of the conservative theological college Tyndale Hall, Bristol, sitting in a concert hall, listening to a German Jew conduct a Polish Jew in a piece of wordless secular music, and yet attaching such significance to the experience. Even though music was the art form most likely to be appreciated within the evangelical constituency, rarely does the historian find such a positive evaluation of the arts, their effects, and their place in the theology of creation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical theologies of culture have at root been theologies of the Fall. Anglican Catholics in England in the twentieth century began to recover a much older incarnational sense, thought to have been lost since the Reformation, of human activity as a subordinate participation in the work of creation. Not only could the maker of a work of art communicate something to the viewer about the aspect of creation that he or she was representing; the act of making could also in some sense be co-operating with God. In contrast, the evangelical view of human capability has tended to be more pessimistic. At its strongest, this view was that sin so defaced the divine image in human beings and so clouded their perception that their unaided attempts at understanding God and creation would be at best partial and incomplete, if not indeed corrupted and thus useless. Any attainment of virtue would be accidental, the product of external influence rather than any effort on the part of the individual. To attempt to create anything of beauty would be futile, and all participation in secular activity prone to the corruption of pride and self-interest.

At base, this is the centre of theological gravity in what remains, even after thirty years, the most sustained historical treatment of the question of evangelicalism and culture in Britain, Evangelicals and Culture by Doreen Rosman (1984). In the early nineteenth century, Rosman found many individual evangelicals who were able to engage in the arts in positive ways, and indeed to delight in their performance. However, evangelical theology was never able to develop its instinctive rhetorical claim on the whole of human life into a framework that could comfortably encompass the arts. Unable to sanctify the senses, it was often forced instead to seek to subjugate them. Evangelicals ‘were never confident to assimilate such worldly activities within the framework of their world-denying theology.’

This chapter examines evangelical encounters with the arts in several modes: as both consumer and performer in the apparently ‘neutral’ sphere of the home; as users of the arts in the context of public worship; as users of the arts as tools for evangelism; and as moralist and reformer of the artistic pursuits of others. It concerns itself mainly with music, literature, the visual arts and drama, and its examples are drawn chiefly from Britain and the USA, and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That said, its overall analysis makes a claim to be applicable to the evangelical movement as a whole.

In certain cases there were evangelical principles that went to the very basis of the art form concerned, such as the stress on the intelligibility of words sung to music, which as a result were both widespread and persistent. At the same time, there were other evangelical concerns, such as the taboo on attendance at the theatre, which were not so much issues with the medium itself, but a particular social context in which it was produced. As a result such prohibitions could be, and were relaxed at other times and in other places. Evangelicals at times enthusiastically embraced certain art forms and individual works; at others they rejected them on principle; in other circumstances the story was one of resistance, adaptation, and the replacement of secular versions with safe and edifying substitutes.

Implicit in much of the chapter is a wider question: how far was evangelical engagement with the arts conditioned by the cultural power that they were able to exercise in general, and the extent to which their cultural presuppositions were shared with their neighbours? At the height of influence of British evangelicalism in the mid-nineteenth century, evangelicals shared many of the same presumptions as their neighbours about the moral purpose of the arts, and about the conditions that should surround their production and reception. As Elisabeth Jay has shown, this cultural closeness was mirrored in the degree to which evangelical life itself was the subject of the Victorian novel; an interest which waned as did evangelical influence in society, reaching a terminal point in Samuel Butler.

In contrast, evangelicals in late-twentieth-century Britain and America found themselves marooned by the processes of secularisation in societies in which any consensus about the purpose of art had fractured, and in which middle-class consensus on morality (the consensus that mattered) had disintegrated. It is no coincidence that this period saw a spate of evangelical writing on the supposed death of Christian culture in the west as reflected in the arts, by figures such as Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker. In this context of perceived cultural and moral crisis, the paradox was that evangelicals were in confrontation with secular artistic production for its godlessness, whilst domesticating its forms for their own purposes – in popular church music, or in religious drama – to a greater extent than ever.

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Walter Hussey and the Arts: chapter summaries

Abstracts of each chapter of Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts (now available from Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 as ebook and hardback), with links to purchasable PDF versions of each.

The book as a whole
The first full-length treatment of Walter Hussey’s work as a patron between 1943 and 1978, first for the Anglican parish church of St Matthew in Northampton, and then at Chichester Cathedral. He was responsible for the most significant sequence of works of art commissioned for the British churches in the twentieth century. They included music by Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and William Walton, visual art by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Marc Chagall, and poetry by W. H. Auden. Placing Hussey in theological context and in a period of rapid cultural change, it explores the making and reception of the commissions, and the longer-term influence of his work, still felt today.
As well as contributing to the religious and cultural history of Britain, and of Anglo-Catholicism and the cathedrals in particular, the book will be of interest to all those concerned with the relationship between theology and the arts, and to historians of music and the visual arts.

Chapter 1. Introduction
The introduction outlines Hussey’s reputation as patron of the arts both during his career and since his death. It reviews the scholarly literature to date insofar as it has paid Hussey any attention, and sets out the several areas of the current historiography of British religion and the arts to which the study addresses itself. Finally it outlines the argument of the book chapter by chapter and ends with some remarks on the scope of the book and what it aims (and does not aim) to do. Buy the PDF

Chapter 2. The formation of a patron
Chapter 2 traces Hussey’s formation in the 1920s and 1930s: the son of a clergyman who progressed through public school (Marlborough), Oxford and ordination training at the Anglo-Catholic Cuddesdon College to a curacy in London. It also examines his early aesthetic development, as a viewer, listener, amateur musician and artist, and lays out the context for that development: of Anglican theologies of the arts of the 1920s, and the available examples of ecclesiastical patronage that others set. It argues that Hussey’s understanding of the arts in relation to culture and of the right form of patronage were both present in their essentials before he began his work at Northampton, as were his particular enthusiasms and artistic blind spots. It also shows that Hussey’s homosexuality was key to understanding the relationships he was later to form with those he commissioned. Buy the PDF

Chapter 3. The 1943 Jubilee festival at Northampton
Chapters 3 and 4 together examine the full record of patronage for Northampton. Chapter 3 begins by situating the church of St Matthew in its local context, and as a prominent example of an Anglo-Catholic church. It then examines the five ventures that together formed the jubilee festival of the church in 1943: an organ recital from George Thalben-Ball, a concert by the BBC Orchestra, new music from Benjamin Britten (his Rejoice in the Lamb) and from Michael Tippett, and finally (in 1944) the sculpture Madonna and Child by Henry Moore. It examines in particular the critical and public reactions to each work, and shows that the debates that the Moore provoked went to the very heart of what religious art was, and what it was for. Buy the PDF

Chapter 4. Music, art and poetry: 1944-55
Chapter 4 continues the story of Hussey’s patronage from 1944 until his departure from Northampton in 1955. It produced a painting from Graham Sutherland (Crucifixion, 1946), poetry from W.H. Auden and Norman Nicholson, and music from Malcolm Arnold, Lennox Berkeley, Edmund Rubbra and Gerald Finzi (Lo, the full final sacrifice, 1947) amongst others, including Benjamin Britten (for a second time). Those twelve years also saw the establishment of Hussey’s characteristic modus operandi, as he created ex nihilo a network of supportive critics, clergy and key players in the spheres of art, music and broadcasting. Buy the PDF

Chapter 5: The religious arts on a rising tide: people, media, networks
Chapter 5 places Hussey’s growing renown in the changed context of the immediate post-war period. Whilst the characteristic catholic understanding of the nature of culture was mostly unaltered by the War, Hussey’s project was now also framed by the need for reconstruction, both physical and (as some saw it) cultural and spiritual. The chapter describes a moment at which a new settlement between the church and the arts seemed possible, supported by a growth in media coverage, scholarly interest and exhibitions. It also details two key relationships in Hussey’s network: with Kenneth Clark, perhaps the most influential individual in British art, and with George Bell, bishop of Chichester, the other most significant figure in Anglican patronage of the arts in the period. It was Bell who brought Hussey from Northampton to Chichester in 1955: the cathedral of a diocese in which Bell had done significant work in relation to the arts, but that was itself not quite ready for a project such as Hussey’s. Buy the PDF

Chapter 6: new visual art for Chichester
Hussey’s commissions of new visual art and new music for Chichester cathedral are examined in chapters 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 6 begins with an examination of what cathedrals were thought to be for, since their purposes were in question in a new way in the fifties and sixties. It then examines each of the works of visual art in turn: works by Graham Sutherland, Geoffrey Clarke, John Piper, Ceri Richards, Cecil Collins and Marc Chagall. As in chapters 3 and 4, it examines both the making of the works and their reception, and argues that, whilst highly effective in their own right, the works as a whole strike a less radical note than the Northampton pair from 1944-6. Buy the PDF

Chapter 7: Chichester music
Chapter 7 examines the series of compositions of new music for Chichester. It argues that the final compositions in the 1970s from the older figures William Walton and Lennox Berkeley have a similarly conservative flavour to the works of visual art documented in chapter 6. However, the commissions from Bryan Kelly, James Bernard, William Albright and in particular from Leonard Bernstein (the Chichester Psalms) show a more consistent engagement with contemporary trends in composition, and in particular the revolution in ‘church pop’ then under way. Buy the PDF

Chapter 8: cathedral, city and diocese
Hussey’s time as dean was one of searching, indeed existential questioning of the very purpose of the cathedrals within the church, in their urban environments, and as destinations for tourists. The whole of Hussey’s career was a response to these challenges by one particular means; chapter 8 examines the rest of his record as dean, and argues that his overwhelming focus on the arts was to the detriment of other areas of the cathedral’s life. Buy the PDF

Chapter 9: Legacy
The book ends with a reflection on the nature of Hussey’s model of patronage. Hussey did inspire others during his career and immediately following to commission new works for churches. But chapter 9 argues that Hussey’s success was in large part due to his personal qualities; his work was not as a distant, demanding patron but as a friend and collaborator, and as an unofficial chaplain to those with whom he worked. As such, his way of working was not easily codified into a model that could easily be transferred to other contexts, and the more public and institutional way in which the churches have come to work in the very recent past is perhaps an acknowledgment of the fact. More fundamentally, it argues that Hussey’s work was based on a catholic understanding of the relationship between national religion and culture, formed before the Second World War but given new impetus by it, which became hard to sustain as both the arts and the position of the churches changed during the long Sixties. Those in the present day churches who would see a live tradition of ecclesiastical patronage have needed to look elsewhere for their justification. Buy the PDF