R.I.P. Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
Ah well. Back in the office on a rainy Sunday afternoon after a few days away trying to catch up before a very busy week next week. I thought I’d pause first, however, to pay my respects to the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose death I learnt of last night. Many tributes have been paid to him already, including several examples of his work on Radio 3 this morning. There’s nothing much I can add to them except to say that he not only had a great voice, but was also a fine actor with a powerful stage presence.
What I can do is post again one of my favourite examples of Jon Vickers, singing the greatest passages in one of the greatest of all operas, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Most people I know who have seen Peter Grimes think it is a masterpiece, and I’m interested to see another physics blog has already discussed this aria. Still, I don’t think Britten is sufficiently appreciated even in the land of his birth. There aren’t that many operas written in English so perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable when we can actually understand what’s going on without reading the surtitles?
I’ve often heard Peter Grimes described as one of the great operas written in English. Well, as far as I’m concerned you can drop “written in English” from that sentence and it’s still true. It’s certainly in my mind fit to put up alongside anything by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and even Mozart.
In this aria it’s not just the extraordinary vocal line, beginning way up among the “head notes” beyond a tenor’s usual range, that makes it such a powerful piece of music, but also the tragic poetry in the words. The main character of Peter Grimes is neither hero nor villain, but a man trapped in his own destiny. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word:
Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher in storm or starlight
The written character of a friendly fate
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?
The part of Peter Grimes was actually written by Britten specifically to suit the voice of his partner, Peter Pears, who performed the role first. The classic recording of that performance is wonderful, but this later version starring Jon Vickers is quite different, and the inner agony portrayed by Vickers’ voice in the upper register is most moving. For its combination of musical expressiveness and dramatic intensity, this music really does take some beating even if you listen to it on its own outside the context of the opera.
Rest in Peace, Jon Vickers (1926-2015)Follow @telescoper