Sunday, June 8, 2014

Peter Grimes & the fishermen who save

Sensationally, that rarest of things,
an English opera, erupted at Sadler's
Wells in the middle '40s to exalt one
of the very great cultures of musical
performance if not of composition, af-
ter Purcell. And how riveting does it
sound, as a dark mentality's protest,
of juridical villainy in his borough:
Grimes, a fisherman, keeps losing his
apprentices, and is ostracized on cir-
cumstantial evidence. It is genuinely
to be considered with the great stage
works in English, whatever one might
think of its severe musical effects,
which reverberate outside comparison.

In the past week, we have seen multi-
national exaltation of amphibious in-
vasion of occupied France as a marker
of values we not only flatter oursel-
ves to profess, but rather delight in
holding to our nostrils. This cinemat-
ically restorative occasion sweeps us
all, in our own way, off our feet. At
the same time, right-wing casuistries
cascaded again upon a black commander
in chief, for acts (as they asserted)
humbling to the nation and its might.
Ostracism and severity are our yoke,
yet every life harbors their rebuttal.

One needs to ask permission of thugs,
these days, to suggest recalling with-
out indignation, how the 1940s' mon-
strous beast was haplessly overmatched 
by remote, unmolested industrial pow-
er, such as no epoch of man had ever
seen, after having bled itself help-
less on its vilest, Eastern front. 

I think of these selective spasms
of remembrance with respect. But I'm
not alone in recalling those identic-
al fishermen of Peter Grimes' borough,
including surely Peter Grimes, in the
great test and proof of pure courage
which that hideous aggression afford-
ed to the beaches of France. I refer,
of course, to the uprising of native
yeoman craft, registering as a cres-
cendo of treble praises, resounding
through the mossy crags of endless
stony sanctuaries of England's south-
ern shores, to save the soul of re-
sistance in the flesh of honest men,
at Dunkirk. If this world does wish
to believe in the sacrifice of men,
let it believe in that seizure of
their rescue we remark upon as play.

The heart of humankind can almost
not contain the fact: Instead of
the 45,000 troops, which the Admir-
alty had hoped to save, the war-
ships of the Royal Navy and the as-
sorted civilian craft had taken off
some 338,000 Allied troops, of whom
193,000 were British and the rest

How'd they do that?

Benjamin Britten
Peter Grimes
Boosey & Hawkes, 1945©

Antony Beevor
The Second World War
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012©

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