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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

The Musical Roots of Suffolk, England, Bind Him to St. Mary's

Written by Sterling Lambert, assistant professor, music history and theory

Sterling Lambert draws inspiration from the St. Mary’s waterfront, like composer Benjamin Britten did from his English landscape.(Photo by Barbara Williams)


I suppose it’s inevitable that my English origins should have had an impact on my sense of identity here at St. Mary’s. Indeed, I’ve long had a tendency to introduce myself to new students with the observation that “you can tell by the way I’m talking that I’m one of the ones here who’s not from Maryland.” Actually, the joke is getting a little tired, yet I continue to search for ways of exploring and expressing my own particular contribution to diversity at the college. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that I’ve finally found myself drifting toward English music as the latest focus of my musicological research.

The music to which I’m particularly drawn is that of 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten, who with his opera “Peter Grimes” (1945) returned English music to the world stage after a period of obscurity that had lasted several centuries. To be honest, I’ve always felt something of a special bond with Britten; for one thing, we share a birthday – not just any day, but St. Cecilia’s Day, the day in honor of the patron saint of music. During those times when I’ve wondered whether I should really be a musician, that simple fact has somehow encouraged me.

The date was important to Britten, too – “Hymn to St. Cecilia” is one of his most beloved choral works. More significantly, however, Britten’s music has served as something of a recurring soundtrack to my upbringing. Some of the first music I ever heard must have been his evocative “Ceremony of Carols,” used by my parents as the accompanying music to a Christmas puppet show, long before I ever knew what it actually was. Later, I sang many of his various choral works (including “Hymn to St. Cecilia”) at college, and had the memorable experience of working as a stagehand for a production of one of his operas at the Aldeburgh Festival, a music festival founded by Britten in a sleepy seaside fishing town in Suffolk, the county on the east coast of England where he spent almost all of his life.

Roots were extremely important to Britten; the place where he grew up and chose to live most of his days was fundamental to his creativity. Like me, he emigrated to the United States, mainly in an attempt to escape World War II. Unlike me, he returned a few years later (writing both “Ceremony of Carols” and “A Hymn to St. Cecilia” onboard the ship home). One of the most memorable utterances of his most famous operatic character, Peter Grimes, might just as well have been his: “I am native, rooted here … by familiar fields, marsh and sand.”

Grimes is a lonely, misunderstood fisherman, tragically at odds with his community (a thinly disguised Aldeburgh), and his words are a response to the question of why he doesn’t simply leave. Similarly, Britten braved a perilous wartime transatlantic crossing in order to return to his roots. (He’d discovered George Crabbe’s 18th-century poem “The Borough” − on which “Peter Grimes” is based− in a Los Angeles bookshop a year earlier, and realized immediately that he had to write the opera, and that he had to go home.) The opera was an overnight success and the first internationally recogrecognized English opera, bringing Britten almost instant fame.

Perhaps a large measure of its success, however, lies in the fact that its subject matter, while so universal to the 20th-century condition (the “outsider” in conflict with society) is also very local, a magnificent homage to the Suffolk coast to which Britten felt so deeply attached. Anyone who knows the area will perhaps respond especially strongly to the first orchestral interlude of the opera, in which a high, meandering line in the strings (evoking the cry of seagulls) mysteriously coexists with sudden flurrying clarinet arpeggios (flashes of sunlight on the glittering waves) and long, faintly dissonant brass chords (the heaving tide of the mighty ocean, grinding against the shingle beach).

Certainly, having spent large amounts of my childhood on vacation in this part of the world, the landscape of Britten’s music is every bit as important as the notes themselves. Indeed, Britten’s scenery encompasses not just sea but land: the “familiar fields, marsh and sand,” as Peter Grimes puts it. Part of the special experience of the Aldeburgh Festival is to attend a concert at The Maltings, an old malt barn converted by Britten into a world-class concert hall. It’s not the only concert hall in the world to boast fabulous acoustics, but there can’t be many others that look out onto the broad flat sweep of a wide river estuary.

Even now, I return to this place whenever I can – and with all of Britten’s archival materials stored in his former house in Aldeburgh, I expect I’ll be spending quite a bit of time there in the future, too. Even so, while here on campus at St. Mary’s, I never feel like I’m too far away. The very presence of Historic St. Mary’s City constantly reminds me, of course, of the area’s English origins, yet there is so much more; the very landscape of Britten’s world seems to me to be very strongly echoed in the beautiful St. Mary’s River. Every time I attend a concert in St. Mary’s Hall, on its spectacular bluff overlooking the winding river, I think of Britten’s memorable concert hall – in my mind, at least, the two places are twins, related from afar.

I also consider how lucky we all are to be able to make music in such exquisitely lovely surroundings, and how important this landscape is to the very nature of music here at St. Mary’s, from senior recitals in St. Mary’s Hall to the River Concert Series on Townhouse Green. Just as Britten drew inspiration from his environment, so too do I gain sustenance from mine, and I’m profoundly grateful for it. I may not be “native” to this place, but it has somehow been possible nevertheless to feel “rooted here.”

Sterling Lambert recently published a book on Schubert’s many settings of Goethe’s poetry. Lambert was born in London, and taught at Tufts and Harvard universities before coming to St. Mary’s in 2006.