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ClassicsOnline Home » BRITTEN: Albert Herring
BBC Music Magazine
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
In 1945 Benjamin Britten stunned the operatic world with the triumphant première of Peter Grimes, a tragic depiction of the social misfit, struggling unsuccessfully to exist in an alien society with which he cannot establish a connection. This grand opera, complete with large orchestra and prominent chorus, put British opera back on a map from which it had been virtually absent since the death of Henry Purcell in 1695. The combination of story-telling and psychological study in Peter Grimes, infusing everyday life with the forces of darkness, set a precedent which characterized much of Brittens operatic output for the rest of his life. It was Brittens genius, of course, to bring these stories to musical life in powerful masterworks which transcend their often provincial English settings.
Like Peter Grimes, Albert Herring is set in Brittens native Suffolk, and reflects a rural village sensibility. Herring, written and first performed in 1947, is, however, ostensibly very different from its grand predecessor. Brittens librettist for Albert Herring was Eric Crozier, who had suggested, as a possible opera subject, a short story by Guy de Maupassant, Le rosier de Madame Husson. Crozier adapted the story, relocating it from its original Normandy setting, and, with Britten, creating a cast of finely drawn characters and a scenario for a chamber opera. They created Albert Herring for their newly-formed English Opera Group, which had a mission to produce opera in English, on a small scale which could easily be toured. There is no chorus, and, instead of a large orchestra, an instrumental ensemble of twelve players. Albert Herring is a comedy, set around the May Day celebrations of the fictional Suffolk village of Loxford. The major issue appears to be the crowning of a May King in the absence of a young woman of sufficient virtue to be May Queen. It could hardly be further from Peter Grimes, with its mysteriously missing fishermans apprentice boys.
Albert Herring is also a study in Suffolk village mores, with its clear delineation of the population into an upper middle class of straight-laced some might say straight-jacketed - worthies and an earthier, generally more appealing stratum of working class folk. Britten and Crozier clearly know this territory, and even the names of the characters, which could be straight out of Dickens, are borrowed from real people and places: Albert Herring himself is named after a shop-keeper near Brittens own Suffolk home; Harold Wood is a station on the Ipswich-to-Liverpool railway line; and Cissie Woodger was a local girl from Snape, the village which now boasts The Maltings concert hall.
The opera, however, has its own darker side, exemplified by the gravitas of the Threnody, sung by the town dignitaries upon discovering, as they think, that tragedy has befallen the May King. There is also the psychological issue of the dilemma of a dutiful young son who, at the age of 22, is more than ready to sow a few wild oats, despite being under the thumb of his mother, for whom he works in the village greengrocers.
It is Brittens genius to create, with small chamber forces, a comic opera sparkling with character, wit, and, at times, great poignancy. Each individual in the cast has a distinct musical personality, paralleling his or her dramatic persona, whether in bantering dialogue, lyrical melody, or parodistic soliloquy, as in the May Day tributes offered by the local dignitaries: the swooping moral rectitude of Lady Billows; the flighty Miss Wordsworth, accompanied by a twittering flute; or the over-excited monotone of the pompous Mayor. The music of the local lovers Sid and Nancy, by contrast, is radiant with warmth and implicit sexuality.
It is the musical portrayal of Albert Herring himself which is, of course, central to the opera. Written for Brittens life partner and musical collaborator Peter Pears, the music reflects the characters sweet nature, his increasing frustration with his mothers-boy status, and his ultimate liberation. This musical characterization is typical of one of Brittens most extraordinary gifts: it is a vivid musical portrayal of the personality of the dramatic character, created by exploiting the specific musical and vocal attributes of the performer for whom it is written. To this day, the rôle of Albert Herring (or of Peter Grimes, or others) evokes for many the sound, which they may know from recordings if they never heard it live, of the voice and delivery of Peter Pears. This evocation provides a template for subsequent performers, as well as a challenge for them to make the rôle their own; but it ensures an individuality and a dramatic and musical coherence which make Brittens compositions so uniquely identifiable.
In an East Suffolk village, Lady Billows and the local worthies discuss the forthcoming May Day celebrations and attempt to select the Queen of the May, a highly revered position awarded to a local girl for her virtue and modesty. It soon becomes clear that a suitable candidate will be difficult to find, as Florence Pike, housekeeper and second-in-command to Lady Billows, has a sordid tale about each of the girls. Lady Billows bemoans the condition of her town: A Sodom and Gomorrah/ Ripe to be despoiled. O spawning ground of horror!
There is, however, a ray of hope: a King of the May. Albert Herring, who works in his mothers greengrocers shop, is suggested as a paragon of decency, though simple, of course. Reluctantly, Lady Billows agrees to teach the girls a lesson. The scene ends in jubilation as Virtue, personified by a simple village lad, triumphs over Sin and Temptation.
The hard-working Albert Herring, meanwhile, is teased by the roguish Sid for being tied to his mothers apron-strings and missing out on lifes joys. Nancy arrives, and while Albert retreats in embarrassment, Sid and Nancy sing of the pleasures of love. Albert expresses his frustration with being his mothers shop-boy, and his eventual rebellion seems inevitable. At this point, the deputation arrives to announce Alberts impending coronation as King of the May. Albert is mortified.
Preparations are under way for May Day, as Sid and Nancy spike Alberts lemonade to add to the entertainment. Each of the worthies makes a speech of congratulations, and with clumsy gallantry Albert raises his glass in thanks to Lady Billows. He drinks the rum-laced draft to the bottom and promptly dissolves in hiccoughs.
Inside the shop that evening, a tipsy Albert listens to Sid and Nancy serenading each other outside. He becomes indignant at the way he has been used in the celebrations and feels foolish; he has had enough. He tosses a coin, pockets his virgin ransom and heads out of the shop, whistling triumphantly.
The curtain rises on the town in a state of despair. Albert is missing, and the signs are ominous. The Mayor, the Superintendent and Sid appear with Alberts now bedraggled coronation wreath, prompting the grief-stricken singing of the Threnody. Suddenly, Albert returns, provoking both relief and anger, and gleefully tells his tale of drunken adventure. Mrs Herring turns on Albert, who retorts that she Protected me with such devotion / My only way out was a wild explosion! Mrs Herring is horrified, but Sid and Nancy are delighted as Albert celebrates his liberation.
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BRITTEN: Albert Herring