In Harmony: Music, Art and the Lure of the Sea

“I write music now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots, in where I live and work.”Benjamin Britten (1964)

Here, in anticipation of the summer solstice and outdoor festivals season, we are reaching into our vast selection of art books, looking for stuff that touches on themes combining the artful, the musical, and the coastal.

The world famous Aldeburgh Festival takes place in the village of Snape every summer in mid-June. This little place (just a couple of miles inland on the Suffolk coast), was originally the home of composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), and tenor singer Peter Pears (1910–1986). Leaving a colossal legacy in the British classical music tradition, Britten and Pears were partners in life and music. Not long after the end of WWII (they were both pacifist conscientious objectors) together they initiated the festival through their own Britten-Pears Foundation. Furthermore, it’s this area of the expansive East Anglian coastline which partly inspired Britten’s most famous opera, Peter Grimes.

“Since the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, the Suffolk Coast has become a world-renowned meeting place for artists and audiences alike. Inspired by the legacy of Britten, today our organisation has evolved into a year-round programme of artistic endeavour…”Snape Maltings website

Did you know that we have a set of classical music playing cards? Well, we do – you might not expect it, but it’s true! From the likes of Bach to Beethoven, Wagner to Sibelius, and Vivaldi to Mozart, Play Music is surely a joy to any classical music fan who likes to play poker. Maybe you’ll also find Benjamin Britten in amongst this pack of esteemed composers…?

It’s the meandering River Alde which gracefully links the small, coastal town of Aldeburgh with its little inland sister, Snape on the edge of East Anglia. This is a landscape celebrated for its low-lying fenland, vibrant with wildlife and its distinctive cultural history. With the fenlands in mind, it’s worth mentioning that between 2004 and 2007 our publisher friends, Film and Video Umbrella produced an ambitious four-year project in which the commissioned artists and writers explored this very particular type of semi-coastal environment. The lovely books of Silicon Fen, Waterlog, and The Memorial Walks make up a trilogy which beautifully document this artistic activity.

Encountering the connectedness of the open sea and inland waterways, Andrew Kötting (filmmaker) and Iain Sinclair’s (writer) critically-acclaimed HOME Artist Film commission, the travelogue, Swandown has a similar vibe as its protagonists voyage through England’s watery landscapes.

Returning back to the coast: another fascinating artist’s commission by Film and Video Umbrella is Susan Collins’ Seascape (2009). In this body of work the artist sets ‘the classical tradition of the seascape against the new horizons opened up by digital technology, Susan Collins’ exhibition was a vivid exploration of the enduring qualities of maritime light, and the equally pivotal relationship between time and tide’.

The ‘seascape’ is exactly the setting for Bethan Huws‘ commission with Artangel back in 1993. Created on the Northumbrian coast, Singing to the Sea is the Welsh artist’s early-career breakthrough work. The shifting edge, where land and sea meet at the roll of the tides becomes the context for a small choir of Bulgarian women singing folk song odes to the North Sea.

Resonating with the atmosphere in the work of Susan Collins and Bethan Huws, the more recent Ship to Shore exhibition at Southampton’s John Hansard Gallery and SeaCity Museum expanded on the art/sea theme. Bringing together a number of artists such as Tacita Dean, Susan Hiller, and Isaac Julien the exhibition (and subsequent book) highlighted how artists have been inspired by their relationship with the sea – an environment equally seductive and dangerous.

It’s time for us to finish up here, so we’re going back inland a little bit – returning to Snape Maltings where we began our perambulation.

The grounds of Britten and Pear’s former home are host to all sorts of cultural activity each summer during the festival. However, one particular all-year-round aspect to this place is its unique setting for outdoor sculpture. Over the decades a number of Britain’s most celebrated artists have had their work lovingly placed in the surrounding landscape: from Henry Moore‘s voluptuous Reclining Figure to Sarah Lucas‘ rural ‘shire horse’, and from Ryan Gander‘s ring of giant charms, to Alison Wilding‘s angular duo, Migrant. There’s much to explore…

The tide-worn, shingle beaches of Suffolk are waiting for you…


Photo credit: Aldeburgh beach, The Scallop by Maggie Hambling, Jonathan Gill, 2017
Posted on 14th June 2019
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