London Letter

The One Sour Note of the Coronation

Beverley Baxter September 1 1953
London Letter

The One Sour Note of the Coronation

Beverley Baxter September 1 1953

The One Sour Note of the Coronation

London Letter

Beverley Baxter

LONDON IS itself again. Both the stands and the standards have disappeared, traffic is actually moving, the police have gone back to their normal task of hunting the criminal, parliament has risen for the long vacation and the Coronation belongs to history.

We still talk about those days of glory and almost unbroken rain but normal life is reasserting itself. Yet there is one subject that still divides friends and families. I refer to the gala Coronation production of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Gloriana, performed at Covent Garden before the Queen and one of the most brilliant audiences ever assembled in London.

Music has charms to soothe the savage breast but the music of Gloriana and the row that followed has made more breasts savage than anything which has happened for a long time. Even the porters in the Covent Garden vegetable market will put down their baskets and argue about it.

Almost as soon as Elizabeth had become Queen, and with many months belore the Coronation, there was a suggestion that Benjamin Britten, the most important of our young composers, should be commissioned to write a Coronation opera. The Arts Council, financed by the state, would bear the cost and the whole thing would he a glorious climax to the golden days and nights dedicated to the crowning of our sovereign.

There was no question of consulting such veterans as Sir Thomas Beecham who ruled Covent Garden in the old days. Nor would Sir Malcolm Sargent or Sir John Barbirolli he asked to help. For a young queen there must be a young composer, and certainly Benjamin Britten had claims that made him an almost automatic choice.

His first opera, Peter Grimes, had been played in almost every great opera house in the world.

His second opera, The Rape of Lucrece, had won plaudits in many lands, and his third effort, Billy Budd, roused enthusiasm as well as controversy but marked him as a significant figure in the world of music.

And who is Mr. Britten? His father was a dentist in a seaside town. Unquestionably the sea stirred the creative impulse in the boy and he would walk for miles to enjoy the mystery, the cruelty, the beauty and the relentlessness of the restless waste of waters.

He was a shy hoy with no love of games and little gift of companionship. His friends were few but his mind was peopled with strange sounds and vivid imaginings. So when he wrote his first opera it is small wonder that he chose the setting of a seaside town in the nineteenth century, with chattering magpies of women and a sullen lonely fisherman who returned one day in his boat to report that his boy assistant had been drowned. Every hand was against the sailor and every tongue lashed him like a whip. He would sit alone by the sea while the orchestra played strange haunting chords as if the dead boy was calling him to destruction.

That was eight years ago and I still remember the thrill and exasperation of the first performance. When the villagers shrieked at Peter Grimes the noise and the brutality of the music were almost unbearable. The theme was cruel, the setting was cruel, and the music was crudest of all. Was Britten a composer wit hout a heart or soul? Had he no sense of beauty or melody? Then there would come those haunting chords of the patient revengeful sea and we knew that we were in the presence of great ability which might develop into genius.

Britten hated the limelight and had no love of London society. Instead he looked like a tall, shy but opinionated schoolboy. Not unnaturally he became the idol of the young extremists in all forms of art. Here was the new man to lead the cubists, the surrealists, the modernists, the rebels, the emancipated school which proclaimed the arrogant philosophy that the highest form of truth was ugliness.

His closest friend was Peter Pears, a Continued on page 53

London Letter


useful tenor who created the leading role in all his operas. They worked together, walked together and were inseparable. Like monks they took the vow to serve only the god of music. In such a monastery there was little place for women.

And now as we approach the astonishing story of the Coronation production ofGloriana I must introduce a third young man, no less a person than Lord Harewood, elder son of Princess Mary and, therefore, a cousin of the Queen.

His father was a man of parts, a brave soldier, a connoisseur of the arts and a rich Yorkshire landowner. The son inherited much of his father’s sensitivity and lie also acquired a reasonable sense of superiority from being related to the Royal Family.

London was mildly startled when lie married a beautiful young Austrian Jewess of no social pretensions. She was, however, a musician and 1 can assure you that she is very lovely.

The Two Elizabeths

Almost before we knew what was happening the youthful Lord Harewood began making his influence felt in the world of music. He founded a highbrow musical magazine, he wrote highbrow articles for the Daily Mail until someone stopped them, and he began to have a big say behind the scenes at Covent Garden with its state-aided opera and ballet.

Therefore it is not to be doubted that he was the ruling spirit in the plan to commission his friend Britten to write the Coronation opera. And soon it was announced that Britten had accepted the command and that he would do an opera on the theme of the love affair of Queen Elizabeth and the Farl of Essex in the sixteenth century. Thus we would have the first Elizabeth on the stage and the second Elizabeth in the royal box.

I apologize for mentioning my own part in this story but as it progresses you will see that it is unavoidable. At the time that the theme of the new opera was planned I wrote in the Sunday Express that the opera could hardly end in a love duet in the normal manner since Elizabeth was thirtythree years older than her lover. However, nothing could deflect Lord Harewood and Benjamin Britten. And we were somewhat reassured when we heard that the opera was to be called Gloriana. Obviously Britten, like the great Lord Tennyson, was going to do the expected thing and glorify the greatest sovereign in England’s history.

The time chosen for the first performance was on the Monday following the Coronation. The visiting Commonwealth prime ministers were invited, so were the senior ministers of the British government and a lot of peers and peeresses. In fact you could have sold tickets at fifty pounds each. I was delighted when a huge invitation arrived with two tickets in the third row of the orchestra stalls and the admonition to wear medals and formal evening dress. We were also told to be in our places by 7.30 p.m. so as to clear the way for the Royal Family.

In the half-hour wait we had free champagne at the bars—except that as taxpayers we were paying the cost of the whole affair—and then we strolled into our seats. Just in front of us sat Sir James Dunn and his nice wife and, leaning out of a box, was that elegant Montrealer J. W. McConnell. I rather think that George Drew was

among the political nobs, but, at any rate, Louis St. Laurent was undoubtedly sitting close to Premier Bob Menzies of Australia.

Lord Salisbury, the leader of the House of Lords and head of the Cecil family, had a possessive look in his eyes, for his ancestor, Lord Burleigh, was Elizabeth’s chief minister. In fact it was Burleigh who insisted on beheading Mary Queen of Scots.

Mr. Speaker Morrison of the British House of Commons looked apprehensive. In private he plays both the fiddle and the bagpipes but how would he respond to this new cacophonous music of the ultramoderns? The only politician who seemed unworried was Premier Nehru of India. He has lived so long on the edge of a volcano that even Britten’s music would be unlikely to frighten him.

In fact this was not a normal opera audience at all. Politicians are notoriously tone deaf and when the late Arthur Balfour led the Conservative Party he was regarded with deep suspicion because he played the piano beautifully. No wonder the Tories finally deposed him. For such an audience an all-star production of Merrie England or The Yeomen of the Guard would have been just the thing. And what a night of enthusiasm it would have been if either had been cbosen!

Six heralds with golden trumpets appear in front of the curtains. A hush comes over the beautiful old house. The Beefeaters—that is the Yeomen of the Guard —stand at attention in the aisles. The rest of us get up and turn around to face the royal box which had been constructed in the centre of the dress circle.

In comes our pretty Queen looking as fresh as a debutante; then her husband, her mother, her sister, Princess Mary, and the Duchesses of Gloucester and Kent. From the vast orchestra in the pit there is a roll of drums and the brass blares the opening notes of the national anthem.

But what is going on? What has happened to the good old tune? We try to join in but the trumpets have gone off on a spree and the violins have almost no relation to anything. I glance at my program and see that this is a new arrangement by young .Sir William Walton, a deadly musical rival of Britten’s. “It should be ‘Disarranged by Sir William Walton,’ ” growled a critic behind us.

However, all things come to an end and we sat down. The lights slowly dimmed and with a blasting discord from the orchestra the curtain went up and we settled in our places to watch the unfolding of that incredible reign which began with England in the slough of despair and ended with England master of the world.

What opportunities it presented to Benjamin Britten whose genius had been nurtured by the sea! He could give us Drake returning from the Spanish Main in the Golden Hind and sharing the swag with the Queen. We could have the orchestration of the wild storm that drove the Armada ships to death on the unfriendly Scottish shores. He could even give us Drake insisting upon finishing his game of bowls and thus establishing the supremacy of sport in England. And we were almost certain to have Master Shakespeare and his actors performing at the palace, for were they not the Queen’s Players? As for the Queen’s speech at Tilbury: “I know that I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too,” it was an obvious certainty.

But we got none of it. Instead we had the love story of the ageing Queen who was furious because the youthful

Essex had married. We had ballet and wonderful scenic effects and gorgeous coloring but the story was tawdry and uninspired. Yet disillusioned as we were the climax of the story was to shock us.

Essex comes upon the old Queen when she has removed her red wig, showing her to be almost as bald as an egg. It was a hideous sight but Britten and his librettist even went so far as to give us the impression that the Queen did not sentence Essex to death for treason—but because he had discovered her baldness.

So the opera came to an end, with hardly enough applause to keep the curtain up long enough to distribute the flowers to the leading singers and

dancers. Hurriedly the orchestra replayed Sir William Walton’s disarrangement of the national anthem and we emerged into the famous vegetable market like mourners left out of a will. Incidentally we were not the only audience. The whole thing had been broadcast by the BBC.

At two o’clock in the morning I sat down in my study to write about it and sent it off to the London Evening Standard. I shall not inflict the whole article upon you but here are the concluding paragraphs:

There are some delicate and exciting passages in the score of Gloriana, yet for minutes at a time—minutes piled upon minutes—it was as clamorous and ugly as hammers striking steel rails. No melody emerged, no tune, no beauty . . .

My head throbbed with the clangor until I longed for the opera to come to an end. It is all very well for Britten in his splendid arrogance to declare that he will borrow nothing from Wagner nor follow Strauss into his purple heavens but to deny the sensuous and the beautiful is to deny the very place of music among the arts. As for myself, I would rather sit in a boiler factory than listen again to the music of that last act.

If I had exploded a bomb in Piccadilly it could hardly have caused more commotion. That inelegant reference to the boiler factory really went to town. For a brief few days I enjoyed a popularity (and a hatred) which was startling. Then the test match began and cricket resumed its calming sway over the British temperament.

Perhaps some day Gloriana will be regarded as a great opera and future generations will wonder what kind of savages we were who could not appreciate the genius and the beauty of the score. It may indeed be true that our judgment was partly swayed by the embarrassment caused to our lovely young Queen when Britten unwigged the other Elizabeth and made her a pitiful old woman consumed with jealousy.

At any rate Britten has added a new expletive to our language. When golfers miss a short putt, or a backer sees his horse pipped at the post ¿he oath “Gloriana!” shatters the air. It will be a long time before the Arts Council, with the taxpayers’ money, will commission another opera. A"