14 May, 2015
Benjamin Britten heard a bomb in Suffolk. He heard the graveled burst, the field golden green, whole, then not. Or perhaps what he heard was muffled, the grate of steel wool together, the scrubbing of pots. He knew though, the eventual composer, the someday lord, that he heard the explosion, his first remembered sound. In 1916, German ships bombarded Lowestoft, striking two homes neighboring Britten’s childhood road. Britten, towheaded, was two and a half years old.
I want the toddler Britten to have wandered into the desolated field days after the bombing. I want him to have discovered in the dark earth a shard of a tree, a chip of a brick, a remnant of something salvageable. I want him, the not-yet-prodigy, to have tucked the rescued debris into his pocket and turned it over and over in his hand creating a rhythm. I have no evidence of Benjamin Britten returning to that field, but if I insert this imagined scene into his childhood, then I also pretend that a teenage Britten placed his souvenir of destruction on top of his piano.
My partner, Kevin, an opera singer, woke me one morning with a line of Britten’s, “Churchyard’s agog with a crowd of folk.” His voice came full, but raw. He had not reached for his glasses yet. One window let sunlight into our attic apartment. Kevin turned his body toward me, brushed my hair away from my ear and repeated the line. “Churchyard’s agog with a crowd of folk who couldn’t get in for the service.” Just the one line. I listened. I didn’t know what agog meant or why the service, but as I awoke, I cared about the delicate string of words, the force of the consonants, the quiet spread of the “ch” into the “y,” the deep plunge of service.
I’m no music expert, and I can’t sing. I took seven years of piano lessons, but retained little beyond Every Good Boy Does Fine. When Kevin moved into my apartment, he brought only a suitcase of clothes and a box of opera scores. We saw eight operas that year, but he never offered me any musical insight other than the scores on the shelf, the seat in the theatre. Except, in his one line serenade, he did give me Britten.
Kevin appeared as Sid in Britten’s 1947 comic opera, Albert Herring. Sid sings “Churchyard’s agog with a crowd of folk who couldn’t get in for the service,” in Act II Scene I. “The plot is simple,” says critic Michael Kennedy, “The local (and teetotal)…Lady Billows, has offered £25 for the May Queen as an encouragement to virtue. The difficulty is that none of the village girls is wholly virtuous. Instead a May King is chosen, Albert Herring, who works in his mother’s greengrocer’s shop. Albert, as he tells his friend Sid, has never been allowed near the risk of any danger. On May Day, when Albert is to be crowned, Sid laces his lemonade with rum.” The rum prompts a bender. During Albert’s frivolity, the whole town suspects he’s been killed, his May King wreath found trampled by a cart. As the key players gather around Albert’s mourning mother, Albert pops home, alive and hung over. He confronts his mum about her hovering, and says “Jolly good riddance,” as he disposes of the crumpled wreath. Curtain. Albert Herring is given little attention by Britten biographers. The work fell between a success, Peter Grimes, and a failure, Gloriana, and catches in the slack between the two.
If I wanted to herald Britten or push an understanding of this man and his music, I would give you his other works. I would tell you about the lurch I feel when Billy Budd sings “On an empty stomach,” before his execution. It’s as though the melody shames me and I am weakened, wounded. Or I would tell you that in the same aria, “Look! Through the Port Comes the Moonshine Astray,” Britten silences the instruments when Billy sings “A blurs in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am,” and his composition move is expected and unexpected all at the same time. At least I think so.
Or I would pull you close to me and place you in a battered armchair and ask you whether or not you think the baritone singing “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm/Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse,” in War Requiem is a second drum to the piece. I would watch your eyes during “Let us sleep now,” of the Libera Me section. I would not blink. I would watch to see if your irises deepen, your tear ducts flicker. I would watch you soften. I would soften. Britten said “Music…demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps…It demands as much effort on the listener’s part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer, and listener.” But I would do nothing to prepare you. Not seek out a performance, not toss words like pacifism and ravage at you, not adjust the pillows behind your back in the chair. I would want to know the music’s potential, what it is capable of without any preparation.
Now, however, I am only concerned with “Churchyard’s agog,” its early-morning gentle punch, its beginning of the day.
“When did you start singing?” I asked Kevin. My head leaned against his shoulder. We sat on a couch that wasn’t his in an apartment where he paid rent but had no room. I had on clothes for the office. He didn’t.
“I was fourteen,” he said. “I was in chorus, and I wasn’t very good. The chorus teacher, he’d already decided to have me transferred to band. Then my ma passed. When I got back to school after the funeral, my teacher decided to give me one more chance. He hadn’t told me he was about to kick me out. I stood there and I sang and I didn’t get all the notes. But I got some. So he let me stay in chorus.”
Kevin’s Long Island accent thickened as he spoke. He hadn’t trimmed his grey/red beard in a few days, and from my position on his shoulder I took in the fatigue of his eyes. Just thirty-two, he looked as worn as the corners of his opera scores. This changed when he performed.
He’d loosen his jaw, shift his weight to his toes, and become a boy about to catch a fly ball. Only what he reached for was a note or two.
I didn’t think about the impetus of grief or question the sincerity of his story. I wondered if he, if we, if I, was lucky his mother had died. I knew that such a thought was problematic. A few days before I asked him about his singing, a friend called from an airport and stumbled through a few sentences about losing her younger sister—Hannah, brunette, school teacher, my age. She died suddenly, and soon my friend would tell of going to Hannah’s apartment to collect camisoles and socks, of guessing passwords and closing bank accounts because someone had to.
As Kevin told me of losing his mother, the sweet, soddy smell of decaying leaves drifted in from a broken window. I gave him no sympathy. I don’t even think I took his hand. But I did look at him full on, with a look that asked impossible asks. I needed to do something with destruction. I needed to feel grateful he could sing.
“Churchyard’s agog,” is a response from a boy to a girl. Nancy, Sid’s squeeze, asks him “What were things like down there in the town?” “Things” refers to the May King celebration. The clamor of the townspeople is important to the plot. Sid’s observations—the fuss, the chastity emphasis, Albert’s discomfort—are also important to the plot. I care less about the message. I like the exchange. What did you see? What did you hear? Where were you without me and can you bring me into that moment?
After returning to Britain from America, Britten sometimes composed at The Old Mill at Snape, the home he had lent to his sister. He sat under rafters, flour falling, a fine decrepit beige powder coating him, coating his pencil, his score. I imagine him writing the music for Sid and Nancy’s exchanges. The curiosity over the May King service not the only one in the opera. There’s the gift of the peach, the beg of a kiss. There’s the promise of an evening walk, says Sid, “Arm in arm, your hand in my pocket.” Small glances, small utterances, signaled with the flute here, the violin there. All the while mill remnants obscured the pencil marks, and Britten would have to pause and shake the score, watching the flour fall onto the floor. “Sid and Nancy are uncomplicated,” wrote a biographer, “their love music as warm and touching as any Britten wrote.”
Kevin didn’t often wake me by singing. When he did, he sang only that one line of Sid’s. No hands in his pockets, no “Girls mean prowling round in bleak and wintry weather whisp’ring whisp’ring whisp’ring I love you, I love you, I love you.” Once, we spent forty-eight hours driving to St. Louis for an audition. I reclined beside him west through Tennessee and north through Kentucky, a respiratory infection battling in my chest. He hummed and sang scales and moved his right hand up, down, in a half circle, in a full circle, embodying each musical transition. I don’t remember if I asked him why the gestures, but I do remember he didn’t explain them. I waited in a coffee shop while he auditioned.
“How’d it go?”
“It’s over.” He looked like a child caught with a smudged face. Unsure how he came by his predicament and unsure how to escape it. “I sang well. I just got stuck a bit. I couldn’t remember the repetition. I just couldn’t remember that Figaro was supposed to be said over and over. I froze. But I made a joke about it and the judges laughed.”
The fragment of music, other than “Churchyard’s agog,” that Kevin sang around our home was the “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro,” section from The Barber of Seville’s “Larga al Factotum” aria. The two lines of music are some of the most common. Even BugsBunny acting as a disinterested and spastic composer managed to coax the name from an unseen baritone. Kevin stared out the coffee shop window while recounting the blown audition. I tried to read something more than disappointment in the way he cast off the mistake, embellished the reaction of the judges to his joke. I wanted him to bring me into that moment of sound and judgment and choking with him. I wanted to know how one forgets a word so familiar to one’s voice. I’d heard Figaro, Figaro, Figaro from the shower, the decibels changing, steam wafting through the doorway’s cracks. I’d heard the name as he stood over dishes in the sink, as he made coffee, as he stretched, oafish and warm, across our futon.
After hearing one of Britten’s early compositions performed, his father asked him, “Ben my boy what does it feel like to hear your own creation? Didn’t you want to get up and shout— It’s mine! It’s mine!” Friends, contemporaries, biographers say that Britten remained humble, taking pride in his work but shrugging off praise. They also say he had an acute sensitivity to criticism, sometimes wondering if the muse had deserted him. He let his early operetta Paul Bunyan fall into oblivion believing it “bewildering and irritating,” as the critics had said. Thirty-odd years after its first performance, Britten sat listening to a revival of the piece, and the strength of it startled him. He didn’t jump out of his chair, but the tears reported to have filled his eyes say as good as any shout, “It’s mine.”
Every day we spent together, I wanted Kevin to get up and shout “It’s mine! It’s mine!” It’s my voice. It’s me making the gentle wash and the arresting burst. It’s me pushing high and pushing low, asking you to wade through nuance, picking out sea glass buried in the sand. It’s me with a song masked as a scream, making you turn, frightening you, enlivening you. His slip of Figaro was an honest mistake, yet it seemed to me a deeper failing. You can’t claim what you can’t hold onto.
There is a problem in the plot of Albert Herring. Albert manages to “cut the apron strings,” as Sid recommends after only one night on the town and a £3 loss. Too much change occurs too quickly. I imagine Albert woke the next morning and staggered to the washbasin. He braved the mirror and said to his now worldly face, “Never again.” I suspect never again proved true. Albert remained the assistant in his mother’s shop, compiling the cartons of mixed herbs, weighing the apples, sweeping and sorting. But we forgive the plot’s weakness. The music bringing us to Albert’s conversion holds us, and that is enough, even if the next morning Albert falls back into his innocent, fearful life.
Long after Kevin left, I listened to “Churchyard’s agog” in its entirety. “Service” still held me, the depth of the grave, of all the others waiting, waiting, in the churchyard to enter.
Then, the coloratura of “hereafter,” I had forgotten about, and I floated up away from the headstones. The song finishes with “I’d like to see him go for good,” a clean, quiet, leveling close. It brings both feet against the ground. I could touch the damp, weathered stone of the church’s doorframe.
I don’t know if this baritone solo is brilliant music. I don’t know if it’s great music, or even good music. I just know the opening two words, “churchyard’s agog,” made me listen. To notice, early one winter morning, the ridges of Kevin’s fingertip across my brow, and the way each letter of each sung word could tether me to something known or set me free. Benjamin Britten died in 1976 in his partner’s arms. Fifteen days later, one of his last compositions, String Quartet number 3, debuted. Some have suggested the abrupt ending of the last movement was Britten’s way of saying “I’m not dead yet.” When I lean into the final seconds of the quartet, I hear the notes fade, and then resurge. They tunnel towards a low note’s lead and open into a clearing, the field, golden green, whole.