Much has been written about the negative effects of overly ambitious, pushy mothers in recent times, but sometimes their obsessive drive has been to the benefit of the wider world.
This is certainly the case for Edith Britten a keen mezzo-soprano who sang with, and was secretary of, the Lowestoft Musical Society during the first decades of the 20th century. Edith made early claims that her son, Benjie, born in 1913, would become the fourth ‘B’ after Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
It is just over six years since I had the privilege of attending the centenary celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s birth with the ‘Grimes on the Beach‘ performance of Britten’s first opera ‘Peter Grimes’. However, it was way back on 7th June 1945 that the premiere was given at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, singing the title role.
Naturally Britten’s first opera was set in Aldeburgh in Suffolk, his home county, and, for its first production Britten suggested a local artist, Kenneth Green, for the set design.
Green provided realistic visualisations of Aldeburgh as a working fishing town as it was then and not the quaint seaside holiday town that we see today.
The lead character of the opera is Peter Grimes. It is a part for a tenor and Britten wrote it specifically for Pears, who was reported to have been strongly influential on the interpretation of the roll. For him that interpretation was life as an outsider.
Soon after the the premiere, the critic William Glock (Music critic for The Observer in June 1945) wrote “During the last fortnight, I have heard and read several comments on Peter Grimes . . . which describe it as a fierce and challenging work.” And, another critic, Scott Goddard commented, “Peter Grimes is no child’s play. The tale is fierce, its development tragic, and the music fascinating”.
Despite being ‘challenging’ for the 1940s audiences the opera was successful and at the time Britten wrote to his friend, Imogen Holst,
I think the occasion is actually a greater one than either Sadler’s Wells or me, I feel. Perhaps it is an omen for English opera in the future.Benjamin Britten, Summer 1945
The success of ‘Peter Grimes’ at Sadler’s Wells and its subsequent addition to the canon, firmly placed Britten as an opera composer and, although I am not sure everybody agrees with his mother about Britten being the fourth ‘B’, his oeuvre without doubt places him alongside Purcell whom he so greatly admired.
The Red House, Golf Lane, Aldeburgh is open to the public and well worth a visit.