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‘In my end is my beginning’: Peter Grimes and Death in Venice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 July 2022

Sterling Lambert*
St Mary's College Maryland, USA


Benjamin Britten, gravely ill at the time of its composition, was surely aware that Death in Venice would be his last opera, and it is not surprising that the work should make reference to his first opera, Peter Grimes, as if to bookend his entire operatic career, and survey the enormous distance he had travelled, as a hallmark of what might be considered the composer's late style. Even so, the dramatic and musical relationships between the two works are unusually extensive. Both operas concern an outsider at odds with the society around him, in a strange reflection of the composer's particular situation as he wrote each work. Each is set in a place particularly special to the composer, where land borders sea in a metaphor for the boundary between life and death. Finally, the protagonist's interactions with a mysterious silent boy in each case hints at a part of Britten's character that dared not speak its name. These dramatic correspondences are paralleled in important musical connections between the operas, despite their ostensibly very different musical languages. Britten's final opera could therefore be understood to exemplify the famous words borrowed by T.S. Eliot from Mary, Queen of Scots: ‘In my end is my beginning’, an appropriate concept given the degree to which Britten was occupied with Eliot's verse at this time.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Donald Mitchell reports having been told this in conversation with Britten, in Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice, ed. Donald Mitchell (Cambridge, 1987), 207.

2 Carpenter, Humphrey, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (New York, 1992), 546Google Scholar.

3 Nolan recounted this remark, made during Britten's visit to Australia in 1970, in an interview with Donald Mitchell during the 1990 Aldeburgh Festival. Edited extracts appear in ‘Sidney Nolan on Britten’, in New Aldeburgh Anthology, ed. Ariane Banks and Jonathan Reekie (Woodbridge, 2009), 249–52.

4 Letter to Wolfgang Born, 18 March 1921, in Thomas Mann: Briefe I: 1889–1936, ed. Erika Mann (Frankfurt, 1979), 185. The other composer on Mann's mind was, of course, Richard Wagner, who had actually died in Venice, in 1883. A large measure of Mann's inspiration for the novella came from his own experience of infatuation with a Polish youth while staying at the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido (the very location of Death in Venice) and working on an essay about Wagner. For more on the influence of Wagner, and particularly the opera Tristan und Isolde, on Mann's novella, see Ross, Alex, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (New York, 2020), 311–16Google Scholar.

5 Reed, Philip and Cooke, Mervyn, eds., Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten 1913–1976. Volume Six: 1965–1976 (Woodbridge, 2012), 410n3 and 415Google Scholar.

6 According to Britten's assistant, Rosamund Strode, Death in Venice as an opera was ‘well in mind by 1965 at the latest’. Rosamund Strode, ‘A “Death in Venice” Chronicle’, in Mitchell, Benjamin Britten, 26.

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14 For the documentation of their collaboration, in the form of letters between the two, see Mitchell, Reed and Cooke, eds., Letters from a Life, Volume Six, 468–9, 491–5, 497–9, 505, 508–11, 531–6 and 555–8. For Piper's own account, see ‘Writing for Britten’, in The Operas of Benjamin Britten: The Complete Librettos, ed. David Herbert (New York, 1979), 18–21, as well as ‘The Libretto’, in Mitchell, Benjamin Britten, 45–54. For a recent survey of Britten's interaction with his various librettists, including Piper, throughout his operatic career, see Mervyn Cooke, ‘Britten and his Librettists: The Composer as auteur’, in Literary Britten: Words and Music in Benjamin Britten's Vocal Works, ed. Kate Kennedy (Woodbridge, 2018), 10–30.

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16 Instead, it fell to Philip Brett, who made this point only after Britten's death, in an article from 1977. Brett, Philip, ‘Britten and Grimes’, The Musical Times 118 (1977), 9951000CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Libretto draft held in the Britten-Pears Library, Aldeburgh. Quoted in Carpenter, Benjamin Britten, 211.

18 Letter to Britten, 1 March 1944, reproduced in Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, eds., Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten 1913–1976. Volume Two: 1939–1945 (London, 1991), 1189.

19 Slater, Montagu, Peter Grimes and Other Poems (London, 1946)Google Scholar. Quoted in Mitchell and Reed, eds., Letters from a Life, Volume Two, 1280.

20 Donald Mitchell, ‘Introduction: Happy Families?’, in Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke, eds., Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten 1913–1976. Volume Three: 1946–1951 (London, 2004), 14.

21 Mann, Thomas, Death in Venice, trans. Lowe-Porter, H.T. (London, 1928), 26Google Scholar. This is the translation that Britten knew.

22 Mann, Death in Venice, 100.

23 An account of Britten's unsuccessful attempt to foster a Basque refugee while living at the Old Mill in Snape is to be found in Carpenter, Benjamin Britten, 116–17. Britten's ideas of adopting two German children in the early 1950s are recounted by Imogen Holst in Christopher Grogan, ed., Imogen Holst: A Life in Music (Woodbridge, 2007), 190–1. Britten's request to ‘share’ Ronald Duncan's son is quoted in Carpenter, Benjamin Britten, 366–7. Britten described himself as a ‘mixture of father and keeper’ in a letter to Ronan Magill on 8 January 1970. Reed and Cooke, eds., Letters from a Life, Volume Six, 330.

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26 According to Paul Kildea, Britten's friend Eric Crozier, the original producer of Peter Grimes, claimed that ‘around the time of Peter Grimes Britten removed a photograph of Robert [his father] from the foot of the staircase in his home, having heard from Barbara “that his father had never really believed in him or had any confidence in his future success as a musician”’. Kildea, Benjamin Britten, 26–7.

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28 For a recent in-depth study of this phenomenon in British music through the ages, see The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, ed. Eric Saylor and Christopher Scheer (Woodbridge, 2015).

29 Chowrimootoo, Christopher, Middlebrow Modernism: Britten's Operas and the Great Divide (Berkeley, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The title of the final chapter is ‘Death in Venice and the Aesthetics of Sublimation’.

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32 Rupprecht, Britten's Musical Language, 249. Britten had expressed admiration for Tristan in his earlier years, and reference to the opera is not inappropriate given its influence on the novella – see n. 4.

33 Harper-Scott, Ideology in Britten's Operas, 289. Please note: pitch indications in this article are of the written (rather than sounding) notes.

34 In a fascinating article on the role of pitch symbolism for Britten, Mervyn Cooke identifies these striking instances of the monotone e2 in Peter Grimes and Death in Venice as a possible pun based on its equivalent solfeggio note ‘mi’ (i.e., ‘me’) as a symbol of egocentricism on the part of the respective protagonists. Cooke also acknowledges the importance of A major and its association with innocence and purity for Britten, dating from Young Apollo. Mervyn Cooke, ‘Be Flat or Be Natural? Pitch Symbolism in Britten's Operas’, in Rethinking Britten, ed. Philip Rupprecht (Oxford, 2013), 102 and 124.

35 Lloyd Whitesell, ‘Notes of Unbelonging’, in Benjamin Britten Studies: Essays on an Inexplicit Art, ed. Justin Vickers and Vicki Stroeher (Woodbridge, 2018), 218.

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37 Foreign notes to the suggested keys within each stave can be explained as follows. In the lower stave, f2 and f1 are an infiltration by F major of the upper stave, while the b♯ could be understood as the leading-tone of the relative minor of E, C♯ minor. In the upper stave, the d♭2 could be understood as scale degree six of the parallel minor to F, an example of mode mixture.

38 Colin Matthews, ‘Glitter of Waves: Imagery and Music’, in Fiftieth Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, reprinted in New Aldeburgh Anthology, ed. Ariane Banks and Jonathan Reekie (Woodbridge, 2009), 30.

39 Matthews, ‘Glitter of Waves: Imagery and Music’, 29.

40 Christopher Palmer, ‘Toward a Genealogy of Death in Venice’, in The Britten Companion, ed. Christopher Palmer (Cambridge, 1984), 256. Bayan Northcott, review of Death in Venice for The New Statesman, 22 June 1973, reprinted in ‘Critical Reception: Britten's Venice’, in Benjamin Britten, ed. Mitchell, 202.

41 For Philip Rupprecht, ‘the vow is a dramatic ictus, acting like Grimes's “God have mercy” cry, as a pivot’. For Ruth Longobardi, ‘there are striking similarities, for example, between this passage and one in Act 2 Scene 1 of Britten's Peter Grimes’. Rupprecht, Britten's Musical Language, 277. Ruth Longobardi, ‘Reading between the Lines: An Approach to the Musical and Sexual Ambiguities of Death in Venice’, Journal of Musicology 22 (2005), 327–64.

42 The remarkable nature of this intermission, in which Act II begins exactly where Act I left off (Example 5) such that the two acts could conceivably be performed as one uninterrupted unit, is a result of Britten's long-standing uncertainty as to where and how to divide the opera. A letter from Myfanwy Piper dated 22 August 1972 suggests that Britten considered ending Act I at the foiled departure (Example 12), while Act II went from the Games of Apollo to Aschenbach waiting outside Tadzio's door. Act III would then have begun with the strolling players. Reed and Cooke, eds., Letters from a Life, Volume Six, 534n1.

43 Ian Hopkins, ‘Ambiguous Venice’, in Literary Britten, ed. Kennedy, 382–3. For Alex Ross, this act of beckoning is one of the most powerful instances of the presence of Wagner's Tristan in Mann's novella, reminiscent of Tristan's invitation to Isolde to join him in death, at the end of Act II. Ross, Wagnerism, 316.

44 Another way of understanding the beckoning Tadzio's role as Aschenbach's leader and mentor can be seen in Myfanwy Piper's suggestion to Britten, in a letter from early 1972, that Tadzio is in effect a representation of the god Apollo, to whom Aschenbach looks for guidance, and that his voice should therefore be used for the voice of Apollo. Her basis for this idea is Socrates's own theory that ‘the lover tries to see and to induce in his beloved the attributes of the God [of] which his soul, in its heavenly state – and therefore even more in its mortal state – was a devotee’. Britten found Piper's argument ‘convincing’ but worried about possible confusion on the part of the audience, suggesting the use of a countertenor instead, an idea that was eventually adopted. Reed and Cooke, eds., Letters from a Life, Volume Six, 491–3.

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49 In 1877, the philosopher and critic Walter Pater famously claimed, in reference to Italian Renaissance paintings, that ‘all art constantly aspires to a condition of music’. Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Oxford, 2010), 124.

50 Bennett, Alan, The Habit of Art (London, 2009), 50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.