Britten (1913-1976) - Four Sea Interludes, From 'Peter
Britten left Britain for New York, conscientiously objecting and writing
the Violin Concerto, the bizarre Paul Bunyan, the First
String Quartet, and those delectable “Rossiniana”, Matinees Musicales.
In 1942 Britten returned to Britain, settling in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk
coast. Facing the foe brought an understandable shift in the general tone
of his music: the Prelude and Fugue for Strings, the Hymn to
St. Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb, Serenade for Tenor, Horn
and Strings, and Festival Te Deum. Inhabiting an environment
dominated by the often forbidding North Sea, Peter Grimes, destined
to set a cat among the pigeons of Twentieth Century British opera, was
almost inevitable. Even before its Sadler's Wells première (June
1945), he had extracted the Four Sea Interludes (and a Passacaglia)
for concert use.
concerning harsh human conflict, matters here only inasmuch as its grim
undercurrents imbue the Interludes with a pervasive aura of hackle-raising
menace. Often obscured by more obvious attractions, this stems partly from
keenly-etched orchestration, but owes far more to the sombre shadows cast
by looming, heaving thematic contours.
Dawn: High-pitched keening evokes a desolate, marrow-freezing seascape,
alternating with a threatening sea-swell rising blindly from the depths.
This latter reminds me of a Tennyson poem, starting :-
the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth.
Sunday Morning: Church-going versus “business as usual”! Overlapping
horns proclaim a bell-like ostinato, against which jostles a spiky melody
bristling with pin-sharp piccolo and (later) pizzicato violins. A contrasting
theme flows uneasily on violas and 'cellos, haloed by woodwind arabesques.
Pursuing an extended ternary form, the music gains in muscularity, but
is increasingly undermined by a deep, resonant tolling. The scene blurs
and crumbles before our very ears.
Moonlight: Rising in small surges, a hesitant chorale is pierced by
sharp sparks of woodwind and pizzicato strings brushed by light percussion:
the moon striking silver flashes from the sea's night-swell. Gradually,
the chorale distends, a dull throb generating fearsome surges, trumpet
and xylophone intensifying the luminous splashes.
Storm: A simple rondo (broadly, ABACADA) starts spectacularly: thunderous
tympani and raging brass ignite fugato pyrotechnics [A]. Threatening phrases
rise chromatically [B], and, on the first return of [A], Britten seems
to quote the Sturmisch bewegt of Mahler's Fifth. [C]
brings splattering rain and spray. Bluster substitutes for originality,
until the arrival of [D]: a ray of hope challenges menace. In the
distance, the sun seems to split the storm-clouds. Sun and Storm compete.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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