by John | Nov 17, 2016 |

E M Forster in Aldeburgh


Suffolk’s literary legacy is well documented in the forms of George Orwell and Charles Dickens, but most commonly overlooked is the great E.M. Forster. Author of the classic novels Howards End, A Passage to India and A Room with a View, Forster was best known for his ironic and well-plotted novels examining class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th century Britain. His enduring contribution led him to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on sixteen different occasions.

In later life, Forster was drawn to Aldeburgh due to his close friendship with Benjamin Britten, spending much of his free time in the quaint coastal town. Perhaps the most memorable photograph of them together, taken in October 1949, is of the two on a boat. The photograph wonderfully sums up the rocky relationship between the two that was yet to occur, much like the unpredictable weather in Aldeburgh itself. Their close but often tenuous bond was to create some of the most enduring additions to the cultural life of the Suffolk coast.

The connection began in 1942 when Britten, then living in America, discovered an article written by Forster on the Aldeburgh poet George Crabbe, a key figure in the town’s cultural heritage. Upon reading Forster’s article on The Borough, Britten was inspired by a new wave of enthusiasm and nostalgia for his beloved Suffolk Coast. In fact, whilst Britten is probably Aldeburgh’s most famous export, Forster is to credit for his return after a short time in LA, and ultimately for the production of Peter Grimes. The production is widely regarded as the “national opera of England”.

Peter Grimes launched Britten internationally as the leading British composer of his generation. In an introduction that the composer wrote prior to its first performance at London’s Sadler’s Wells in 1945, Britten commented “I did not know any of the poems of Crabbe at that time, but reading about him gave such a feeling of nostalgia for Suffolk, where I have always lived, that I searched for a copy of his works, and made a beginning with The Borough ”. From the mid-1940s a friendship between Britten and Forster, 34 years apart in age, flourished.

At the first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948, Forster lectured on Crabbe and Peter Grimes. He would later write about the experience in The Creator as Critic, writing that “there exists in Aldeburgh the natural basis for a festival. It can offer a particular tradition, a special atmosphere which does not exist elsewhere on these islands. Nothing overwhelming, but something that is its own, something of which it can be proud. And George Crabbe lies at the centre of its spiritual heritage.” Soon after Forster’s contribution to the festival, Britten asked him to consider whether he would write the libretto for an opera commissioned for Covent Garden during the 1951 Festival of Britain. Drawing international attention, the production would come to be prepared in entirely different circumstances than 1945’s Peter Grimes, with Forster hesitating over his contribution. He had no previous experience of writing for the stage, but Britten was not daunted by his misgivings.

It was not long before Forster insisted that contribution became collaboration. His desired vision was of something grand and elevating, much like Peter Grimes, and he told principal collaborator Eric Crozier that “Literature stirs me when it wakes me up to the greatness of the world.” After much consideration, Britten suggested Billy Budd by American author Herman Melville. Forster had previously discussed the story in Aspects of the Novel twenty years beforehand, writing that Billy Budd explores an “evil labelled and personified, instead of slipping over the ocean and round the world, and Melville’s mind can be observed more easily.” In regards to the totalitarian evil that had so recently slipped over “the ocean and round the world,” an adaption of the novel into opera seemed especially timely.

It was at this point that Forster and Britten experienced their most infamous disagreement. Forster’s vision of the final product seemed to be at odds with the emotions that it evoked in him. He told a close friend that he had had his “first difference of opinion with (Britten)... He has done dry contrapuntal stuff, no doubt original and excellent from the musician's point of view, but not at all appropriate from mine.” He later wrote to Britten and conveyed his misgivings, writing that Billy Budd was his “most important piece of writing… and I did not, at my first hearings, feel it sufficiently important musically… I want passion - love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel.”

Britten sought advice from both Pears and Crozier over how to respond to the fallout, with Crozier approaching Forster on the composer’s behalf. Despite their disagreement over the final product, the collaborators would come to settle their dispute, with Britten’s admiration for Forster prevailing regardless of their differences. He was grateful to Forster, and later wrote of what a “great pleasure it has been, the greatest honour to have collaborated” with the novelist, and that “it was always one of my wildest dreams to work with EMF – & it is often difficult to realise that it has happened.”

Aldeburgh is indeed inspiring come rain or shine, and it’s certainly not hard to see why so many creative minds have been drawn here over the years. It’s fair to say that Forster’s impression of Aldeburgh, of its “special atmosphere”, still resonates in modern times. If you fancy an E.M. Forster inspired stay in this quaint coastal town, look no further than Gallery Cottage. Whilst today it is the part-time home of artist Tessa Henderson, in the 1950s Forster often stayed here. Set in an idyllic location with exquisite views of the sea, an incredibly cosy reading nook and a writer’s desk, this property is ideal for anyone searching for a bohemian escape - reader or writer.


EM Forster: A Literary Life

The Creator as Critic and Other Writings

The Cultural Heritage of the Suffolk Coast

Britten and EM Forster: A meeting of minds on the high seas

Peter Grimes, A Man for the People

Britten’s Introduction to Peter Grimes

Photograph credit: Financial Times. It shows E.M. Forster, Benjamin Britten and co-writer Eric Crozier working on the opera ‘Billy Budd’ at Britten’s home in Aldeburgh, 1949.

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