The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

5

Albert Herring

Who knows, who can tell, what grim struggle raged in the Rose-king's soul between the powers of good and evil; with what headlong attacks, stratagems, and temptations Satan beset that timid and virgin heart; what suggestions, images, and desires the Evil One conjured up, to compass the ruin of that elect soul?

Guy de Maupassant, Le Rosier de Madame Husson 1

In his article 'Character and Caricature in Albert Herring', 2 Philip Brett describes Albert Herring as a 'parable of oppression', a label which suggests that the opera is a further examination of the dramatic conflict between social oppression and self-repression, liberation and defeat which lay at the heart of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. Based upon Guy de Maupassant's short story, Le Rosier de Madame Husson, in many ways it does appear to be a comic companion piece to Lucretia. It was composed for the newly formed English Opera Group and premiered at Glyndebourne on 20 June 1947 by the same singers and instrumentalists who had performed Lucretia in the preceding year. Furthermore, the Suffolk setting and the satirical presentation of a hypocritical ruling elite recall the landscape and social milieu of Grimes. 3

The librettist of Albert Herring was Eric Crozier, who had himself suggested the subject to Britten. Crozier had little writing experience and must have been as surprised to find himself promoted from adviser/producer to librettist as Britten's previous collaborator, Ronald Duncan, was to find himself rejected after what he considered to be his successful partnership with Britten on The Rape of Lucretia. Duncan describes how he and Britten had discussed and begun to develop ideas for future operatic projects:

While we were rehearsing Lucretia John Christie invited Ben and me to write a new opera which he promised to present the following year. Ben agreed and said that he wanted to write a comedy. This put Abelard [Abelard and Heloise] out of the question and since the new piece was to be a chamber opera the Canterbury

____________________
1
Guy de Maupassant, Madame Husson's Rose-King (Le Rosier de Madame Husson) (London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1977), pp. 89—90. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given in parentheses in the text.
2
Philip Brett, 'Character and Caricature in Albert Herring', Musical Times, October 1986, 545—7.
3
Britten's use of self-parody and self-quotation means that the score of Albert Herring is liberally scattered with textual and musical references to Grimes and Lucretia.

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The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Operas of Benjamin Britten - Expression and Evasion *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Permissions *
  • Abbreviations x
  • 1 - Introduction *
  • 2 - Paul Bunyan *
  • 3 - Peter Grimes *
  • 4 - The Rape of Lucretia *
  • 5 - Albert Herring *
  • 6 - The Little Sweep *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 8 - Gloriana *
  • 9 - The Turn of the Screw *
  • 10 - Noye's Fludde *
  • 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream *
  • 12 - The Church Parables *
  • 13 - Owen Wingrave *
  • 14 - Death in Venice *
  • 15 - Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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