Friday, July 11, 2008

The sea at Aldeburgh

Caspar David Friedrich, Bohemian Landscape, c. 1810

Back in June 1991 composer David Matthews gave the first Peter Fuller memorial lecture, discussing the link between music and art, with a strong emphasis on landscape. For example, Friedrich's paintings of distant mountains find their 'exact musical equivalent' in Bruckner's 8th Symphony, with its 'regligious apprehension of nature'. The 'Royal Hunt and storm' from Berlioz's opera The Trojans (1863) is similar in spirit to Claude's last painting, Landscape with Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia (1682). And Wagner and Turner share a mastery of colour.

The talk was reported on by Boris Ford in the Autumn 1991 edition of Modern Painters. He quotes a section on 'Dawn', one of the Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes, which was compared to a Philip Wilson Steer seascape, Sunrise on the Sea, Walberswick (1889):

'... a high, unaccompanied, melodic line for violins and flutes. This is clearly the sky. If the violins had played the line by themselves, the purity of their tone might have suggested an unclouded blue, but the stage directions indicate 'a cold grey morning', and with the dulling of the violins' bright overtones by the flute doubling, we sense one of those high, wide, leaden skies so typical of the East coast: this is the sea at Aldeburgh... so Britten brings us in, through the clarinet and viola arpeggios, outlined by harp, which are perhaps the breaking of waves on the shore, to the great expanse of the sea itself: soft brass chords expressive of the sea's power and of its latent menace, which will explode later in the opera in a violent storm.'

In 1995 a new score of the Sea Interludes was discovered which had been closely annotated by the composer (and might therefore be seen as related tengentially to the 'annotated landscape' art discussed in my previous posting here). According to the BBC proms site 'it is not known when or why Britten marked up this copy of the score - was it perhaps to help him draft a programme note? - though the precise, albeit prosaic, nature of the annotations suggests that specific events in the music were related to specific visual images in the composer's mind. Thus, against passages in 'Dawn', we can read 'land (or sea scape)', 'slow wave', 'gulls' and 'a big wave', and in 'Storm', 'Seascape (whole sea)', 'waves', 'wind', 'spray blowing' and (rather more revealingly) 'still centre (Grimes' ecstasy)'.


Pedro Ludgero said...

This is a great blog. You don't speak portuguese, do you? Otherwise, I'd invite you to see mine...


Plinius said...

Thanks. Sadly my Portuguese is non-existent - I would love to be able to read Pessoa in the original!