Saturday, August 23, 2008


The dogs are walked and there's fresh flowers in the house, bunches of Astartea, a myrtle hybrid whose little pink faces follow you around the room, and some glossy green foliage of the Old Man Banksia (Banksia serrata). The myrtles are a plant family with essential oils which release on crushing into wonderful familiar scents. Eucalypts, cloves, and allspice are myrtles. Here there are clumps of these happy little shrubs close by, where a low sweep of the hand from the bush to the nostrils never fails to startle with its sweet pungency.

In this morning’s ABC FM ‘Keys To Music’, Graham Abbott and the Melbourne Symphnoy Orchestra were looking into Britten’s Sea Interludes. We were tuned in. K. had made the porridge, and a good porridge too, with fresh sliced pear just cooked enough to still give that distinctive juicy crunch against the smooth creaminess of the oats. I was starting the weekend’s Minestrone.

As was pointed out, 'Peter Grimes' (1944), from which this orchestral suite derives, is not an opera about the sea; it is about people, a small fishing village and an outsider. After Christopher Isherwood rejected a request to write the libretto, Montagu Slater, a writer of the political left, willingly agreed. Slater was to emphasise the conflict between Grimes and the village, portraying him as a victim of small minded prejudices. Britten himself noted during its composition: “It is getting more and more an opera about the community."[*]

The opera starts with an inquest into the death of one of Grimes' young apprentices. He is cleared of foul play, but suspicion lingers. He feels unworthy of the widowed schoolteacher Ellen, in a class above him, till he is more prosperous, a struggle which drives him to unreasonable ends, but not to success. Although Ellen would have accepted him as he was, he is unable to see himself as her equal and during a quarrel with her over her concern for his rough treatment of his new apprentice, he strikes her. This brings about the end of their relationship, his dream of happiness, and is the beggining of his end. A landslip outside his hut kills the boy, not directly Grimes fault, but the village can now never believe in his innocence. His sanity slipping, he is advised to take out his boat and scuttle it, to suicide, and he does. The next day dawns as the village life continues unchanged, nothing more than a page torn from its book. Peter Grimes is a masterful commentary on the iniquity of judgement.

The Four Sea Interludes that make up Opus 33a (there is another interlude and passacaglia in the opera) are Dawn, early shafts of light on a cold grey beach morning as fishermen prepare their nets; Sunday Morning, church bells ringing the chattering gossips in to their service; Moonlight, at once dark and delicate, with a disturbing sense of impending disaster; and the Storm, which actually sits between Sc 1 and 2, Act 1, mirroring the turbulence in Grimes’s mind, following his plaintive song of release from anguish: “ What harbour shelters peace?”

What harbour shelters peace?
Away from tidal waves, away from storm
What harbour can embrace
Terrors and tragedies?
With her there'll be no quarrels,
With her the mood will stay,
A harbour evermore
Where night is turned to day.

Graham Abbott concluded: “I ecncourage you to explore it (Peter Grimes); I encourage you to explore ANY NOTE witten by Britten.” Amen.

[*] "Britten" David Matthews


Easy peasy Minestrone for a cold weekend:

In a big heavy based saucepan, soften 1 or 2 fine chopped onions in just enough good oil till onions soften and clear, then add equal amounts of coarsely diced carrot and celery (say, 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks), including some celery leaf, and gently soften over low heat.

Add about 8 (skinned) big ripe fresh tomatoes, breaking them up with your wooden spoon as you mix. (To skin, bring tomatoes just to the boil in a pot of water, cool and the skins peel off easily)

Add a small tin (400gm) of (washed) cannellini beans, or (overnight soaked) dried ones, then gradually add up to 500ml (heated) chicken stock, fresh made or shelf is fine these days. Bring to a gentle simmer, add more stock or water to suit. Some whole (flat leaf) parsley sprigs added now gives extra good flavour (take out before serving)

Add coarse diced potato and sweet potato (handfull of each), and maybe more stock or water to your preferred consistency.

Season to taste, and let simmer, covered with tight lid, for an hour or so, adding a big bunch of shredded spinach leaves along the way. Simmer away, lid on, till the veggies are nicely cooked, till you’re ready, or better still, leave aside and reheat later; the flavour is always better.

Serve with fresh grated parmesan and crunchy bread or a herb bruschetta. And a drink.