On the stony beach at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, there stands a sculpture of a broken scallop shell. At over four metres high, its steel rim is pierced by a line of words: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’. The composer Benjamin Britten used to walk along this beach, and the shell is dedicated to him, the celebrated resident who co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival. Its evocative words are uttered by the protagonist of one of his most famous operas, the tormented fisherman of Peter Grimes.
Sculptures are the public art form that most directly interact with landscape. Yet here is an artwork also in dialogue with a musical story. And while music is invisible, it has at least as much power to enchant our perception of place.
I recently discovered the third string quartet of Sally Beamish, Reed Stanzas, which was premiered in 2011. The work owes its own debt to Britten. Beamish composed it for the Elias Quartet, and she revealed how its name arose from listening to their recordings of Britten’s music. It brought back memories of her days playing viola at Snape, and ‘the wind blowing through the reed beds’ on the nearby river Alde. This village, five miles inland from Aldeburgh, is home to the Snape Maltings concert hall, which was established by Britten as part of the Aldeburgh Festival.
But another location looms large in Reed Stanzas. It was partly composed at the opposite extreme of Britain, on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The two places, as Beamish puts it, are ‘very different, but equally windswept’. Her cottage had a view of the meadow along the shoreline, a special habitat known as the machair. The ‘loneliness and vastness’ of these two landscapes, experienced and remembered, underpins the music.
Beamish has lived in Scotland since 1990, and the country’s traditional music has been a strong influence in her work. The quartet begins with a melody ‘in the manner of Pibroch’ – a Highland bagpipe tradition. This is given to the Elias’ second violinist Donald Grant, who is also a skilled player of traditional Scottish fiddle. In the premiere recording below, he walks on stage playing this theme, so that the music seems to emerge out of another tradition, and another time.
I have written about Vaughan Williams’ tone poem In The Fen Country, which also portrays of a vast East Anglian landscape. Like that work, the solo of modal melody which opens Reed Stanzas conveys both a loneliness and a sense of history.
But whereas Vaughan Williams’ piece blossoms into full-bodied impressionism, Beamish’s approach is reticent, fragmentary, and mysterious. Much of Reed Stanzas is quiet and high in register, avoiding richer textures. The string quartet medium is more of a charcoal sketch, deftly outlining a vastness it cannot fully describe.
As Beamish mentions in her programme note, bagpipes are one of a host of instruments that use reeds in their construction. Clarinets, oboes and accordions have all called on them to create sound, while the body of the ney, a flute heard in Arabic music, is made from the stem of a giant reed.
She also mentions the huge variety of symbolisms that reeds have acquired across different cultures. As long as humans have needed access to water, they have been navigating reed beds. Like the infant Moses hidden in the bulrushes of the Nile, they appear in many of our oldest stories.
Reeds mark the meeting of land and water, but it is their dance with the air which seems to fascinate most. Aesop told the fable of how the weak reed bends in the wind, but it is the strong tree that falls when the storm comes. Blaise Pascal described mankind as a ‘thinking reed’ – we have the capacity for understanding the universe, even as we are fragile against its powers.
The gentle movements of reed beds prompt listening, and contemplation. To begin his spiritual epic Masnavi, the Sufi poet Rumi invites us to listen to the reed flute, and hear how its song laments the separation from its bed. Its notes are brought about not just by the wind, he says, but also the ‘fire of love’.
When W.B. Yeats titled an early poetry collection The Wind Among The Reeds, he invoked the hushed atmosphere of the supernatural. Of these poems, The Host Of The Air draws on an Irish folk tale. A man is driving ducks from the reeds of a lake – at dusk, he hears the uncanny sound of piping, and is briefly ushered into the ethereal dream-land of the faeries. There he sees his new bride, who has been stolen away into their world. The vision vanishes, but the strange notes of the piping remain, ‘high up in the air’.
The musicality of reed beds are assured by the birds that dwell in and around them. Beamish describes how they haunt the ‘salt-scented wilderness’ of Harris too. She was so ‘berated’ by a lapwing while composing Reed Stanzas that its call was composed into the score.
The way that Beamish introduces this work invites us to think deeply about landscapes, and the more universal aspects of our relationship to nature. But by linking the work to Snape, she also embeds it into a history of a particular place, one as inevitably connected to Britten as the Alde is to the sea.
Britten was born in Lowestoft, and moved to Snape in his mid-twenties. Before he founded the Aldeburgh Festival, he and his future partner Peter Pears spent three years pursuing new opportunities in America.
During this time, Britten read an article by EM Forster about the Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe. It included extracts from his narrative poem Peter Grimes, a disturbing tale of a sadistic fisherman accused of murdering apprentice boys. Britten bought a book of his poems, and Crabbe’s evocations of the Suffolk coast he knew so well galvanised his homesickness. Britten later described the discovery like an epiphany: ‘I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked.’ The idea of an opera on the Grimes story was born.
What Beamish calls the ‘vastness and loneliness’ of the landscape is there in Crabbe’s poetry. Forster sets the scene: ‘expanses of mud, saltish commons, the marsh-birds crying […] Crabbe heard that sound and saw that melancholy, and they got into his verse’. The first lines that Forster quotes – and so the first that Britten read – describe Grimes alone in his boat.
When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mudbanks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide […]
At this point, Grimes is an accused man – he ‘hangs his head’ while he watches, as if in guilt. The slow, warm tide seems a sinister force, while the ‘hot slimy channels’ of the estuary suggest a unwelcoming borderland where no man should wish to hide – an alien place, even a disgusting one.
Beside the melancholy of the flat marshes, Crabbe touches on a disconcerting aspect of estuaries – their blurred boundaries and confused intermingling. They are a place where the land begins to take on the level shape of water, where even as the river flows out, the sea comes in.
After Britten and Pears returned to England, Peter Grimes was premiered in 1945. The work was wildly successful. Britten moved to Aldeburgh, and together with Pears and the director Eric Crozier, they co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Composer biographies often tell of talented youths journeying to the city to learn their craft – not so many of them travel back to bring the music home. Britten’s decision to base himself in Suffolk, and to run a festival there, have charged this part of the country with a musical energy that lingers long after his death.
But Beamish’s comparison of two ‘very different, but equally windswept’ landscapes raises broader questions: of the longer, slower processes that lie behind our relationship to place. To this end, Harris and Suffolk are particularly good examples.
It is easy to forget that some aspects of our landscapes are much older than others. 9000 years ago, you could have walked from where Aldeburgh stands today all the way to Denmark. The lower sea level of the last ice age meant that a vast area was exposed, now known as Doggerland. Here, Mesolithic humans once flourished. The cloudy waters which brood so inscrutably in Peter Grimes are the graveyard of an ancient culture.
‘What a wallop the sea makes as it pounds at the shingle!’, Forster wrote of Crabbe’s hometown. The waves drum out a warning – if they so choose, they can overwhelm us still. In 1953, a storm combined with a high spring tide, and water surged inland all along this low-lying coast, creating one of the worst disasters in British peacetime history. In England over 300 people were killed. Britten’s house was flooded – its address, appropriately enough, was on Crabbe Street.
The sea’s violence persists, even incrementally. Suffolk’s vulnerability is encoded in a coastline that suffers continual erosion. Each tide that oozes up its estuaries is the long breath of a sleeping giant.
The chalk and clays of this county are geologically young, but in contrast, the Outer Hebrides can boast some of the oldest rocks in Europe. Their backbone is made of the Lewisian Gneisses – true hardy survivors, formed and reformed in stages between one and three billion years ago. This island chain, with their prehistoric standing stones of Callanish, are themselves standing stones to a third of the earth’s history.
The rocky peaks of Harris project a kind of craggy resilience in a stormy sea. But the machair meadows that Beamish’s cottage looked out upon are much more delicate. This rare ecosystem is created by sandy sediments and shell matter which are washed ashore by the waves and blown inland. The machair then is quite literally ‘wind-swept’: the wind, via the waves, swept it into being.
With different landscapes come different patterns of living. The Outer Hebrides have a history of crofting, while low-lying East Anglia is particularly suited to arable farming. And it was access to prime agricultural country, along with a river passage, that made Snape a choice site for Victorian entrepreneur Newson Garrett to build a Maltings – a place to malt barley for beer, and ship it to breweries.
When malting finally ceased in the 1960s, the Aldeburgh Festival was outgrowing its smaller venues in the area. Britten saw the opportunity to lease the largest building on the Maltings site, and convert it into a concert hall. And so it began that strains of music joined the wind among the reeds on the river Alde.
Forster said that Crabbe was ‘a provincial; and I am using provincial as a word of high praise’. A similar sentiment could be expressed about Britten’s decision to root himself in his home county. But unlike Crabbe, who never left these shores, Britten was also a worldly traveller, whose cosmopolitanism informed the music he composed here.
In Japan, a Shinto creation myth describes deities sprouting into existence like reed shoots from primeval waters. It was during a trip to Tokyo that Britten attended a performance of Sumidagawa (Sumida River), a play in the highly stylised Noh theatre tradition. Its simple story, of a madwoman crossing a river in search of her lost son, fascinated him.
With librettist William Plomer, Britten made this into a ‘church parable’ – a one-act opera for church performance. The tale was moved to a Christian setting in medieval East Anglia, under the new name Curlew River.
Britten was keen to avoid a pastiche of Noh, but he retained a ritualised form and an eastern-inspired palette of sound. We are told that a miracle took place nearby, ‘where, in our reedy fens, the Curlew River runs’. In the unfolding tale, the madwoman takes the river ferry in search of her lost son, only to find out he has died – on the far bank lies his grave.
The river and its curlews seem laden with a strange meaning. Using an ensemble of just seven instruments, Britten creates an extraordinary atmosphere. Hypnotic tone-clusters on the organ recall the sho, a Japanese reed mouth-organ.
Stricken by grief at her son’s graveside, the miracle occurs when the madwoman and her fellow passengers hear the dead boy’s voice. He tells her to go in peace, for they shall meet again in heaven. As in Yeats’ poem, the reedy shore is a place that whispers to us from other worlds.
Echoing the traditional fiddle solo that begins Beamish’s quartet, Curlew River is framed by a procession of plainchant – its performers sing as they walk in, and take their places. Our parable seems to emerge out of another realm, and Britten’s scoring shares much of the quartet’s understated aesthetic. Both works ascribe a mysterious power to locality; both simultaneously suggest that these locations could be anywhere.
Reed Stanzas touches on the fact that Britten’s legacy is not just in the body of music he left, but in a deepening enchantment of the places that he lived and worked. This process continues in various ways: through the festival he founded, The Scallop on Aldeburgh beach, and the local celebrations that marked his 2013 centenary. Beamish’s quartet adds a new chapter to that ongoing story.
We can see it too when concertgoers post pictures of the Snape reed beds on social media, and marvel at the beauty of the location. Like a site of pilgrimage, its remoteness from the metropolitan centres of music has become part of its appeal and enchanted meaning.
Reed Stanzas is a relatively short work, but the plurality of its title suggests that there is more to the music than the riverside of Snape, or the machair of Harris. Through its quiet contemplation and fragmented form, it prompts the imagination to a greater vastness, and a counterpoint of histories sounding in timescales orders of magnitude apart.
The music seems to say that, if we listen to the wind in the reeds, we too can hear voices that refuse to be drowned. They speak in stanzas as old as the first footprint in the tidal mud. In this bed of memory we crossed the lost plains of Doggerland, and touched the sand of the world’s farthest islands. In there too we spelled circles out of stones, moulded deep in the earth over a billion years ago.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
Sign up to our mailing list: