Berklee Today: Coda(archived article)

Bluefishing with Britten: Beneath the surface of music and life

From a bluff overlooking Cape Cod Bay, this particular August dawn is clear and cloudless, the air still, the tide at high slack. Then a very deep hum breaks the silence, and my first thought is of a ship's engines, perhaps a tanker or a passenger liner too far offshore to be seen. But the horizon stays empty as the sound grows in intensity, not louder but somehow deeper, punctuated now by high, fast clapping.

I study the water, and a large, ragged patch of deep purple appears, broken by small whitecaps moving steadily toward the shore while the clapping increases. Is it the swell of an ovation at some outstanding performance? In a way, yes, although the actors, it turns out, are applauding themselves. The performance is a bluefish blitz: hundreds of the ravenous fish slashing and beating at the water as they chase uncountable thousands of tiny minnows. The show ends with startling suddenness as the blues turn aside, sensing the shallow water close to shore and leaving the baitfish, still swimming for their lives, to beach themselves and die. A mile-long line of shining corpses marks the ebb tide as the sun comes up full in the morning. As a mute observer, I feel stunned by and grateful for the event, privileged to have been there.

Listening to the music of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), I feel this same sense of stunned gratitude. Britten was an artist of both light and sound, and much of his music was anchored directly in his feelings for the sea. He was born in a house near the sea in Sussex, on England's eastern shore, and he chose to live the greater part of his working life with his partner, tenor Peter Pears, in the fishing village of Aldeburgh, just 20 miles from his birthplace. The power of the sea - to soothe, excite, disturb, uproot, and destroy - is never far from Britten's work, but at the same time he never descends to predictable, cinematic writing (cymbals clashing, waves crashing, and so forth). Instead, the sea is a presence, musically felt and subtly captured in the Britten soundscape.

My Cape Cod bluefish blitz has a special analogue in Britten's great opera Billy Budd.* In the penultimate scene, Billy, the young sailor who personifies virtue in Herman Melville's story ("oh beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness" in the opera's libretto by Eric Crozier and E.M. Forster), is about to be executed for the impulsive killing of John Claggart, the ship's master at arms, the embodiment of evil who has falsely accused Billy of treachery. The entire crew assembles to witness the administration of "justice," most of them roused from sleep in the half-light of near dawn. As Britten brings them all on the decks of H.M.S. Indomitable, the accompanying music signals the arrival of each group, from ordinary sailors to young boys (the ship's "monkeys" of 10 to 14 years who scamper up the rigging to the tune of high pipes) to the officers and Captain Vere (with official drums and brass fanfare), to Billy, flanked by marines but very much alone. The death sentence is read out in a flat monotone, accompanied by a single sustained low note, and only the final words "hanging from the yard arm" are sung, in descending drum and bass tones. As Billy leaves the stage, walking up toward the place of execution, all eyes are fixed on him, and even the captain silently removes his cap.

But when Billy is gone, an extraordinary musical sequence begins, as the sailors turn away from the yard arm toward the quarterdeck above them where the officers stand. The men begin to mutter and grunt, then to growl very deeply in staccato rhythm. The inchoate sounds grow in power and feeling, but there are no words. As listeners, we hear - and Britten makes us know - the tones of fury, rebellion, and mutiny. The sailors' chorus builds almost to climax; Britten brings them to the very edge of full-throated shouting. At this point, the officers intervene, themselves almost shouting, then singing in chorus, "Down all hands! Down all hands! Down!" with brass and pipes as accompaniment. For just a few acutely dissonant bars, the two choruses of officers and men are literally at one another's throats with equal intensity. And then, in a moment akin to the bluefish turning, the men turn aside. They give up and "from the force of habit" (as the stage directions indicate) begin to disperse: "the deck empties and the light slowly fades." The music here becomes eerily quiet, strings and soft brass, then woodwinds in a major key, but interrupted by dissonant notes. Britten takes us into the light again, but also into the uneasy peace of the Epilogue, where Captain Vere, now an old man, reflects on his career.

In this very brief final section, Vere struggles with the ambiguities of life, especially the split between himself as a moral being, and his (god-like) social role as commander of a vessel, responsible for the maintenance of order above all values. He vascillates between doubt about Billy ("I could have saved him. . . . Oh what have I done?") and certainty, as he sings, "But he has saved me. . . . I was lost on the infinite sea, but I've sighted a sail in the storm, the far-shining sail, and I'm content." This is sung accompanied by the full orchestra (all hints of dissonance gone) in a passage of surpassing melodic beauty. But then the captain sings his final words, almost whispered, without accompaniment: "When I, Edward Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable." At the end, he is utterly alone. And so Britten leaves us, with only the power of a barely audible but haunting song.

To return for a moment to that dawn on Cape Cod Bay, I felt thankful to have been there. In a way, the gratitude is easily explained, especially when we realize that the bluefish can and will blitz again. I know that the natural experience can be repeated for others, if not for me. To echo Captain Vere, "I am content." But I also felt stunned. This part is more difficult: the raw fury of the bluefish attack is deeply disturbing, as is that wordless growling of the sailors. To me, this is where Britten's magic lies. He is constantly challenging complacency, startling us out of whatever easy peace we may have settled into.

Reflecting as I have here on the ways in which nature and art conspire to surprise us into new levels of awareness gives me pause to look back on my own role as a liberal-arts professor at Berklee for the past 30 years. James Baldwin said it best in a 1962 interview: "Artists are here to disturb the peace." He was talking about the need to shake people up, to make them aware of the burning issues of American society, especially those of race and class. But I want to push Baldwin a bit further here by arguing that we are all called upon to be artists. As students, teachers, composers, performers, observers of nature, and citizens of the larger world, we all have to be dedicated to disturbing the false peace of complacency, of the status quo, of looking for and listening for only the expected, predictable surfaces of music and life.

Walter W. Harp has taught history, sociology, and English in Berklee's General Education Department since 1976.

Suggested reading and listening:
  • By all means, read Melville's Billy Budd, available in many editions. The best, with a reliable text and the poem that initially gave rise to the story, is the Modern Library, ed. John Bryant: Herman Melville, Tales, Poems and Other Writings (New York, 2001).
  • For listening: one of the delightful things about Britten's music is that a great deal of it is available in versions conducted and/or performed in by the composer and recorded by London/Decca. The CD transfers are generally excellent, and this body of recordings forms an authoritative reference library. So check out the Britten Billy Budd, London/Decca 417428 (London Symphony Orchestra).
  • To my ears, though, there are two modern recordings that exceed the original in different ways, besides having the obvious advantage of modern audio technology. You can't go wrong with either one: on Chandos, CHAN 9826(3), Richard Hickox with the London Symphony Orchestra; and on Erato, 398421631-2, Kent Nagano with the Halle Orchestra and Chorus.