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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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

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).

Britten in Northampton, 1943

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Britten at the BL

The majority of the posts on this site are free to read, but this one is available only to my wonderful Patreon supporters. To help me keep creating new writing, and to keep most of it free, become a Supporter over on Patreon. Get access to everything on this site, and advance access to new posts, hot off the press, all for only £2 a month, and you can cancel any time you like. Thanks!
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