Thursday, 2 April 2009

Aldeburgh Country

Later this month the Boydell Press will, in association with Aldeburgh Music, publish a rather special volume, the New Aldeburgh Anthology compiled by Ariane Bankes and Jonathan Reekie. Taking its inspiration from Ronald Blythe’s classic Aldeburgh Anthology of the 1970s, this new publication brings the story of Aldeburgh and the Suffolk coast up to date just at the point when its identity might seem diluted by the accelerating pace of change.

Britten and Pears' Aldeburgh Festival lies at the heart of the book. Their legacy is re-examined by musicians such as Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Roger Vignoles, and music writers James Fenton, Paul Kildea, Peter Dickinson and Rupert Christiansen. Poets Andrew Motion, Blake Morrison, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Lavinia Greenlaw and other writers have all been inspired by the bright yet haunting atmosphere of the Suffolk coast; Maggi Hambling and Alison Wilding are sculptors who have left their mark on the landscape; while artists as varied as Sidney Nolan and John Piper, Arthur Boyd and Louise Wilson have all derived rich inspiration from it.

Here, to give a taste of the delights this book will offer, is a short extract from Ronald Blythe’s new preface:

This wonderful book could not have – in their wildest hopes for the future – been imagined by the three young men who, just after the war, determined to cease wandering and to settle for a music festival on the Suffolk coast. Neither they nor Aldeburgh itself could have foreseen what would flow from this decision, nor would they have given any thought to it. For them the excitement was in the present. The very austerity of both the time and the place suited what they had to do. In 1948 the shingle was still littered with concrete blocks and barbed wire, the vast river of herring was vanishing, the industrial enterprises of the Garrett brothers were failing and the local accommodation for Festival audiences verged on the severe. There is no more accurate account of those early days than Imogen Holst’s Diary.

And yet, what happened! The historic severity of this coast inspired a distinctive type of creativity which can now, via these vivid contributions, be seen not as a ‘school’ but as something which does not exist elsewhere. Thus this second Aldeburgh Anthology has the dual quality of being both an absorbing read and an important addition to our understanding of the arts – and music in particular – during the late twentieth century. They have thrived in a sharp climate. But then they always have, as anyone can see when they look up at the medieval oak and flint churches or into the stern couplets of George Crabbe. One of the most engaging things about these many writers, musicians, artists and photographers is the way in which Aldeburgh has ‘got them’. Although they show every kind of response to it, the little town and its surrounding countryside seem to hold them in its grip. Just as they did its genius-interpreter Benjamin Britten. I would meet him on the marshes in the cold afternoons, not very wrapped up, walking lightly, the wind tearing at him, the sea sullen and Aldeburgh itself white in the near distance. It was etiquette not to see him, to walk on. To be ‘working’, as he was working at that moment. Many of these contributors are in their various way working walkers in that unique territory.

To give the necessary balance to so many gifted incomers, the New Aldeburgh Anthology allows Suffolk to speak for itself and in all kinds of voices. Local historians and fishermen, natives and ‘foreigners’ all put their oar in, so to speak, adding to the vigour of the selection. Almost everything said and done is cinematic to some degree, the East Coast weather dominating music, writing, painting, sailing, thought. All this atmosphere blows through the book and is present even where it isn’t mentioned. It makes for clear statements. What should not astonish the reader, but which nevertheless does, is the variety of the contents. If nothing else, they remind the reader of the broad vision of ‘Aldeburgh’ from its early days to the present, and how it has always striven to include every talent.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology will be available from booksellers worldwide, not just in Suffolk, and a special limited edition may be purchased direct from the publisher.

Note on pronunciation: Aldeburgh is pronounced in a similar way to Edinburgh, so Ald’boro rather than Alder-burg.

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