Benjamin Britten (2013)

Paintings based on Benjamin Britten´s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes

The project is divided into two parts:  
Part I. Paintings Based On The Four Sea Interludes
Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, Storm.

Part II. Paintings Based On Britten´s Handwritten Notes


Extracts from the Book "Do we smile or do we weep"?



 As a music publisher, I am fascinated by DESSA's extraordinary approach to painting, working directly from music in real time.  The spontaneity and expressiveness of her work is inherently musical in character, and I am delighted that she has now turned her attention to Benjamin Britten.   The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes - with their evocation of Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight and Storm - have proved an ideal stimulus for DESSA's project, and the addition of the Passacaglia from the opera has provided a compelling counterpoint. DESSA's paintings have captured the spirit of this powerful music in a highly personal way, and they make a welcome contribution to the celebration of Benjamin Britten in his centenary year.

Janis Susskind

Managing Director

Boosey & Hawkes, London



DESSA talks with Frank Harders-Wuthenow in Berlin

Frank Harders-Wuthenow works for the Berlin branch of Boosey & Hawkes, the publishers for Benjamin Britten.

Extract from the full text published in the book Do we smile or do we weep?


F: Remember Blake's poem The Tyger, which made such a great impression on Britten and which he composed only late, in 1965, as part of his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake:

"Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

And later on the crucial sentence: "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" I think Britten's works are deeply inspired from this ambivalence prevailing in all nature, and also in the human soul. In the innocent is hidden the nucleus of the perverse, the beautiful and perfect body of the tiger is also a monstrous killing machine which will devour the lamb, in the murderer lies dormant a saint, and in the divine there is somewhere the seed of evil.

D: I am astonished! You have just shed light on my painting Sunday Morning IV, (page 15) which asks the crucial question for the entire project, Do we smile or do we weep? To the depths of my unconscious the music suggested someone really 'looking out a window' (insinuated by the almost vertical lines) at an animal, a tiger or a leopard. I had considered taking the animal out of the painting, wondering where had he come from. However, the feeling that animal was important prevailed, so I left it there.

F: Astounding! Nature, so important to Britten, seems to be always also a mirror for him, a metaphor for human nature. Think about the ambivalence of the sea in Peter Grimes.

D: The ambivalence is multiple. The sea can be calm but can also be wild and dangerous, just like people. It can appear quiet but carries not only the sounds from waves, but of birds, whales and dolphins. It can provide a source of income for fishermen, and be their grave too. Not all is apparent to the eye: under the surface of the water, just like behind the human façade, lies threatening swells. One learns to fear the unexpected. What fascinates me about the sea is that the sea can provide our senses - sight, sound, smell and touch - with so many beautiful visual and emotional sights and feelings, and yet we cannot drink that water: we will die.


F: What impresses you most in the music of The Sea Interludes and Passacaglia?


D: The way the music suggests multiple ideas; for example the opening lines of Dawn could be describing the first rays of the sun across the sky, or a wave delicately reaching the beach and flowing backwards, or birds ascending and descending. It could be the movement of air - someone breathing in deeply and exhaling. I am also impressed by the changes in rhythm of the interludes, and how Britten masters the speed, the different instruments of the orchestra all thrashing out at once and how he uses the instruments for description. In the Passacaglia I can hear Peter Grimes walking away, his back bent, awkward, displeased.



An Interview with DESSA by Gaby Sohl


Gaby Sohl is a writer and a journalist; she works for the newspaper "die tageszeitung" (taz) in Berlin.

Extract from the full text published in the book Do we smile or do we weep?



G. Did you choose the interludes?


D. The Britten-Pears Foundation in Aldeburgh suggested the Four Sea Interludes, and I added on a fifth interlude, the Passacaglia.


G. Why the Passacaglia?


D. I had a long talk about the orchestral interludes from Britten's opera Peter Grimes with Dr Nick Clark, the Librarian at the Britten-Pears Foundation. He thought the Passacaglia was so important because in it Britten was describing Grimes himself. It is musically speaking so different from the other four interludes, an illustration of a solitary and unpleasant fisherman whom I find most unlikeable, accusing his apprentice "You and that bitch were gossiping. What lies have you been telling?" I thought it would be an interesting artistic challenge to bring in human figuration with Peter Grimes separate from the crowd. In the last of the four paintings from the Passacaglia the forms fade away following Britten's slow diminuendo at the end of this interlude.


G. Benjamin Britten was fascinated by 'outsiders'. He always said that great things come from the lone individual. What makes Peter Grimes an outsider? Who is he?


D. Peter Grimes is an invented character in a poem set in Suffolk, by Crabbe. It was published in 1810. Britten came across this poem in an article by E. M. Forster whilst he was living in California, at the time of the Second World War, and he stumbled over a copy of the poem in a Los Angeles book store. He and Pears transformed him from an evil fisherman to more of a misunderstood outsider, but still not really likeable. The opera contains a lot of violence and conflict, corresponding to the time in which it was composed. Britten said that great things come from lone individuals but that is not always the case. Outsiders can have variable fates. The crowd persecutes Peter Grimes until he has no choice but to drown in the sea. For Benjamin Britten, the opera was a great success and brought him international recognition. I think Britten felt himself much an 'outsider' being a homosexual pacifist from the English middle class, but having many friends from intellectual and bohemian circles.

Britten's roots were very important to him. In California he realised that he had to go back to his home in Suffolk. However, he said he wrote music not only for people around him but also for those further afield, for everyone.


G. Is there something in your identity that links here - to the outsider?


D. Absolutely. In Switzerland I do not think there is another female Jewish white African artist, born in Zimbabwe to Eastern European parents, and who then lived in Israel and Paris, before settling near Lausanne - and works part of the year in Berlin. I have been called a 'world citizen'. My multiple identity stems from roots that are not only from one place in the natural world but from history and ethics, from the invisible. Today, depending on where I am, I connect to all, to some or to none. It took a long time to come to terms with being an outsider. Now, I rather like the freedom it gives me. I move from top to bottom, from left to right, from country to country, and mix with all regardless of religion, colour, class or sexual identity. I feel good wherever I am able to be the person I am. Politically I much appreciate the direct democracy in Switzerland where we are required to vote on all sorts of issues. I have experienced different political systems as well as war, segregation and exclusion. So I have much admiration for the collegiate governance and constitution of the Swiss Confederation.


(All texts in the book are published in both English and  German)