Friday 7th June
For some time , I’ve wanted to visit Aldeburgh and see the places where Benjamin Britten lived and worked, to wander along the beach and immerse myself in the landscape that inspired him. This weekend, at last, we’re going, coinciding with the opening of the 66th Aldeburgh Music Festival, which was originally set up by Britten and his partner Peter Pears. A special year, too, since 2013 is the centenary of Britten’s birth.
All week in London it’s been sunny and refreshingly warm. All week I’ve been checking the forecast for Aldeburgh and hoping the predicted 12 degrees maximum and unbroken cloud for Saturday and Sunday are a mistake. Optimistically, I pack my bathers, goggles and a towel. They never make it out of the bottom of my backpack. Sensibly, I pack my charity-shop-sourced Gucci leather jacket, a scarf, gloves and a snug hat. None of these go unworn.
Bus ride to Liverpool Street. Top deck, front seat. London sparkling and showing her best side in the sunshine. We spot two people shading themselves with parasols. Train journey to Saxmundham via Ipswich goes smoothly. I’m still wearing sunglasses. The countryside is every shade of green, with sudden gashes of intense yellow as we pass fields of rape. We’re collected at Saxmundham station by Nick’s mother, and her partner, who drives us to Aldeburgh and the cottage they’ve hired for the weekend.
4:45 p.m. Aldeburgh beach
After a quick trip to the local shops for a few supplies, Nick and I trudge along the pebbly beach. The sun is out but there’s a sharp wind. The Gucci jacket is already proving its worth. On a cordoned off section of the beach, a set is being constructed for an outdoor production of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. A few fishing boats rest on shore. But there are no boats at sea, no hardy swimmers to be seen. I know this afternoon is my best opportunity for a swim, but the cold wind, the choppy waves and my natural caution dissuade me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist a paddle, so I burden Nick with my shoes and handbag, hitch up my footless tights, and run down into the shallows. Stand on the edge of the North Sea and let the waves tumble and run over my feet and ankles. A primal urge satisfied. Nick helps me back up onto the beach and I pick my way painfully across the shingle to a lone deckchair where I dry my feet with a tissue and put my shoes on. Turns out the deck chair is part of one of the SNAP art festival exhibitions, so I’m politely requested to vacate it, which is fine as I’ve just tied my laces.
6:45 p.m. Aldeburgh beach
After a convivial few drinks with our fellow weekenders in Ye Olde Cross Keys, Nick and I decide to venture further along the beach in search of Maggi Hambling’s Scallop sculpture. It’s a beautiful evening, if you ignore the wind, and it’s wonderful to be out under an expanse of high blue sky, and it feels like extremely good exercise crunching along over pebbles, but after a short while the wind defeats us and we head back towards the cottage, and all the while I have the the storm sequence from Peter Grimes accompanying me in my head.
Saturday 8th June
10:00 a.m. Aldeburgh Parish Church
A bracing walk along the high street to the church where we’re to attend our first concert. But first, we stroll through the chuchyard to the Lawn Cemetery and locate the graves of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. They lie side by side, marked by simple grey slate tombstones. I feel moved, more than I’d anticipated. We spend a few quiet moments in this peaceful place. Their impact, their legacy, reaches far beyond the small fishing town where they lived most of their adult lives.
An hour later, we’re seated on hard wooden chairs at the back of the packed church for a concert of piano and cello music, performed by brother and sister Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano; and also Artistic Director of the festival) and Valérie Aimard (cello). Aphorisms by Shostakovich consists of 10 short solo piano pieces, angular and surprising. I’m particularly struck by Nocturne, Elegy and the last piece Lullaby, which is quite lyrical with a melancholy undercurrent. Next up, Cello Sonata (1948) by Elliott Carter. A harder listen, but the interplay between the cello and piano is interesting, and their are some nice syncopated rhythms, and a driving energy to the last movement. After the interval, four solo cello pieces by György Kurtág from Signs, Games and Messages – intriguing, and whetted my appetite to explore more of his work. Lastly, Britten’s Sonata in C, op. 65 (1961), lively and playful, with some wonderful pizzicato passages and superb playing by both musicians. Tremendous.
1:20 p.m. Scallop
Colder and windier than the previous evening, but Nick and I are spurred on to find the Hambling sculpture, which was erected in 2003 in tribute to Britten. It seems appropriate that the steel sculpture is located on a desolate stretch of beach beyond the main centre of the town. It’s not as large as I’d imagined, so you don’t feel dwarfed by it, which seems to echo Britten’s statement that he wrote music ‘for human beings’. The open shell faces the roiling sea, a phrase from Peter Grimes perforating its edge: I hear those voices that will not be drowned. A fitting tribute.
6:00 p.m. Snape Maltings
We arrive early for the evening concert so have plenty of time to wander around the grounds and see some of the exhibits from SNAP, the visual arts festival that runs alongside the music festival. Of particular interest, Milk and Music (Sally in our Alley) by Mark Fuller, a large sphere made from plastic milk cartons, and a collection of empty mackerel tins threaded on thin rope and just asking to be rattled. We were too late to see Mark’s performance with Sarah Lucas, but the sculpted objects are witty, and the string of mackerel tins may (or may not) reference the slung mugs Britten devised for Noye’s Fludde.
8:00 p.m. Snape Maltings Concert Hall
The concert, performed by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, opens with Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli by Michael Tippett. I’ve yet to be wholly won over to Tippett’s music but I enjoy this piece and scribble down ‘Vaughan Williams-y’ in my notebook come the interval. The highlight of the concert, though, is Britten’s Les Illuminations, settings of 10 of Rimbaud’s poems. The young soprano Sophie Bevan‘s passionate performance is thrilling, and Britten’s music sounds so bright and fresh and still startling. In the second half, we hear a world premiere, I give you the end of a golden string, by Judith Weir, a simple melody evolving and building, and then Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) by Béla Bartók, which has some great percussion elements and eerie tones from the celesta – again, another composer whose work I need to explore more – but it’s Les Illuminations and Sophie Bevan’s superb singing that linger long in my mind.
Sunday 9th June
10:15 a.m. The South Lookout, Aldeburgh beach
We can’t stay away from the seafront, going for another brrrrrrracing walk, and stopping at the South Lookout for another little dose of SNAP art. We climb the vertiginous spiral metal staircase on the outside of the building, up to the small second floor lookout room, for Emily Richardson’s sound installation Rising Fifth. This refers to an unrealised memorial to Benjamin Britten, which would have sung two notes from Peter Grimes when the wind reached a certain speed. In the little wooden room with salt-encrusted windows, we hear vibrations, whistling wind and pounding seas – rather like the conditions outside.
11:00 a.m. The Red House, Golf Lane
Next stop on our mini Britten pilgrimage, The Red House, where Britten and Pears lived for nearly thirty years. There’s a gallery displaying fascinating objects and memorabilia, from postcards and holiday snapshots, old plane tickets, Britten’s passports, board games played amongst friends, to poignant items such as the viola Frank Bridge gave Britten when he departed for the States shortly before the start of the Second World War. You can wander around the library and browse along the bookshelves, and it feels a very warm and light space, a lived in and useful space, and another fascinating insight into their shared creative lives. I’m amused to notice ‘O’ Level Cookery as well as books on birds, artist’s monographs such as Kokoschka and Sidney Nolan (Pears was a great collector of art), and of course scores of scores. The studio where Britten composed is also open to view, although roped off; again, a light and airy space, and very special to stand on the edge of what is an almost a sacred place.
4:30 p.m. Orford Church
Our last concert, and this time we have seats in the central pews, quite near the front. All choral work, and the programme starts with an early piece by Britten, Pacifist March, sung by Aldeburgh Voices. This is rather charming, if a little naive perhaps, and sung with great conviction. Three Shostakovich songs follow, stirring and challenging, The Last Volley particularly affecting. Next, the Latvian Radio Chorus performing Ligeti’s ethereal Lux Aeterna. Then an amazing vocal piece by Santa Ratniece, Horo horo hata hata, with the ten singers producing extraordinary feathery, trilling, pprr-pprring sounds, whispers and whistles and otherwordly layers; spinetingling stuff. The following piece by Jonathan Harvery is a contrasting sound world, the meditative Plainsongs for peace and light. And a glorious end to the concert with the Aldeburgh Voices and Latvian Radio Chorus combining forces for Britten’s 1965 composition Voices for Today. I hadn’t heard this before, and it’s a powerful work, a mature take perhaps on Pacifist March, with as much conviction but much more complex musically; and half way through, when the voices of the New London Children’s Choir join in from the back of the church, I feel a rush of emotion, a sense that Britten’s work is being passed on to future generations, and how important it always was for him to engage with the community he was rooted in, and to engage with young people in particular. A wonderfully uplifting experience.