The townsfolk, all present, make it clear that they think Grimes is guilty and deserving of punishment. Act 1[ edit ] The same, some days later After the first orchestral Interlude in the Four Sea Interludes concert version entitled "Dawn" , the chorus, who constitute "the Borough", sing of their weary daily round and their relationship with the sea and the seasons. Grimes calls for help to haul his boat ashore, but is shunned by most of the community. Belatedly, Balstrode and the apothecary , Ned Keene, assist Grimes by turning the capstan. Keene tells Grimes that he has found him a new apprentice named John from the workhouse.
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After a further thought , we list references and resources. A single incident often provides the inspiration for a song. But not for an opera. Peter Grimes is a rare exception. But despite some success, after two years he was sensitive to criticism for having fled England at her time of need, still felt like an outsider and was becoming homesick. In July he and his partner Peter Pears - came across an article by E.
Forster in The Listener magazine entitled "George Crabbe: The Poet and the Man" which struck a deeply responsive chord from its very first sentence: "To talk about Crabbe is to talk about England.
Britten recalled that reading about Crabbe "gave me such a feeling of nostalgia" and "evoked a longing for the realities of the grim and exciting seacoast.
George Crabbe - led a comfortable life as an apothecary, parish doctor and Domestic Chaplain to the Duke of Rutland, won some further renown as a cataloguer of beetles, and achieved success as a poet. And yet he had a hard upbringing under his strict father on the melancholy, flat North Sea coast of England, among the poor folk whose lives and surroundings infused his spirit.
As aptly summarized by Forster, his poetry has no warm heart, vivid imagination or grand style but rather tartness, acid humor, honesty and a direct feeling for English types and scenery: "He is not one of our great poets. But he is unusual, he is sincere, and he is entirely of this country. After a fawning dedication, it comprises a page narrative preface and 24 "Letters," each a poem of up to several hundred rhyming couplets, mostly in iambic pentameter, describing an institution e.
Yet as described in The Borough neither character seemed inviting for artistic development. Grimes seems even less appealing as a suitably complex opera subject. They then enlisted Montagu Slater, a leftist poet for whose plays Britten had written incidental music. Pears considered him neither a hero nor a villain but rather a universal type — "very much of an ordinary weak person who, being at odds with the society in which he finds himself, tries to overcome it and, in doing so, offends against the conventional code, is classed by society as a criminal, and destroyed as such.
Several observers feel that Slater went even further, bypassing Grimes altogether as the leading character in favor of the sea Carpenter , the geographic locale Porter , the community Eric White or society as a whole Percy Young.
A year after the premiere Slater published his own version of the libretto, which Britten had altered to better fit the music he had in mind and stage director Eric Crozier had made more colloquial. Perhaps to deflect any conjecture of creative friction, Slater asserted in a preface that he had worked in "closest consultation" with Britten and that his version merely omitted some of the repetitions and inversions required by musical, as opposed to literary, form.
While allowing that he had cast the prologue in verse and had used a variety of meters for the set numbers, Slater asserted that for the body of the drama he had chosen four-stress lines with rough rhymes. He noted that the five-stress lines used by Crabbe had been traditional in English poetic drama but that their rotundity was "out of key with contemporary modes of thought and speech," as opposed to four-stress lines that have a "conversational rhythm" and "sense of naturalness.
That summer he joked that he was racing the war to see which would finish first and that he hoped the war would win.
Widowed schoolmistress Ellen Orford empathizes with Grimes and implores him to come away with her to start a new life.
The Aldeburgh Moot [City] Hall, c. As he brings his boat ashore Grimes is largely shunned. Despite misgivings, arrangements are made to being him a new apprentice from the workhouse. Ellen defends her interest in helping Grimes. A storm threatens. Captain Balstrode, a retired skipper, urges Grimes to leave, but he commits to stay and dreams of redeeming himself by marrying Ellen, but only once he has worked hard enough to become wealthy and respectable.
Grimes enters and shares a mystical vision. Ellen brings the new apprentice. The men set out to investigate; the women commiserate. Recollections of his prior apprentice intrude on a reverie of hope. Hearing the approaching mob, Grimes rushes the boy out the cliff-side door. The boy falls to his death and Grimes follows down the cliff. Finding the hut empty, the posse leaves but Balstrode remains to look around.
Armed and fueled by rumor, the men spread out to hunt down Grimes. Ellen realizes he is beyond help. Balstrode tells him to sail off, scuttle his boat and go down with it. As dawn breaks the town comes to life; shrugging off a rumor of a boat sinking out at sea, its good citizens begin another day.
Omitted from this heavily abridged and admittedly shallow synopsis are supporting characters who enrich the fabric of the community, even as their hypocrisy affords a forceful subtext of social commentary — Swallow, the mayor, is a lecher; Bob Boles, a smug preacher, has a taste for drinking and women; Mrs.
Sedley, a self-righteous busybody, is a drug addict; Ned Keene, the town apothecary, is a quack; Auntie, the landlady of the Boar Inn, sidelines as a pimp; and her two "Nieces" flirt with her customers.
Although a major presence, the new apprentice is never heard other than a terse scream as he falls to his death but bears mute witness to the turmoil in his own mind, a device that effectively requires the other characters to absorb, distill and convey his thoughts and emotions through their own filters. Britten himself explained: In the past hundred years, English writing for the voice has been dominated by strict subservience to logical speech-rhythms, despite the fact that accentuation according to sense often contradicts the accentuation demanded by emotional content.
The second part of the line is far more conventional with an orthodox recitative scale and a suggestion of melodic progression, the stylistic familiarity of that portion serving to underscore the distinctiveness of the setting of the preceding segment. As a general matter, Matthew Boyden notes that Britten shunned lushness — he especially despised Puccini — and that his sense of elemental austerity reflects an essentially pessimistic view of humanity.
In his opera survey Henry Simon cautioned that Peter Grimes threatened to alienate audiences not only by its "rather repellent subject matter" but by the "almost tortured language of the libretto. Britten devotes about one-fifth of the total running time to atmospheric Interludes, discussed below , which set the emotional moods that resonate through the scenes that follow. Although through-composed, far more of the opera than might be expected in an innovative, modern work comprises rather traditional arias in which Grimes or Ellen brings the action to a halt so as to confide to us their innermost thoughts.
As unifying devices, White points out the occasional use of repeated motifs to suggest parallels between characters and plot developments; at its most patent level, the music that began Act I reappears to end Act III, thus not only serving as a formal frame but affirming that nothing has changed, no lesson learned nor redemption earned from all that has transpired and thus flouting the very essence of tragic drama.
As Alfred Frankenstein noted: "Peter Grimes is not the type of opera wherein all the real musical expression takes place in meditative, lyrical or atmospheric passages. There is action in the score as well as on the stage. Peter Grimes is a musical drama. Each scene except the Prologue is introduced by a substantial orchestral piece. Beyond their practical necessity to enable the stage crew to change the sets within each act, the Interludes serve a far more integral function.
With respect to the first category, Powell notes the clear influence of Frank Bridge, to whom Britten owed his passion for music, recalling that at age nine he had been "knocked sideways" when he heard Bridge conduct his evocative tone poem The Sea and was taken to meet him.
Bridge became a cherished mentor and guided Britten through the first several years of his early development as a prolific composer. Two of the Peter Grimes interludes seem clear descendants of its "Moonlight" and "Storm" movements. It has to do with the people in the village. A week before the premiere, Britten conducted in concert four of the interludes ordered so as to form a logical progression, opening with a languid depiction of dawn and ending with powerful storm music. Eventually he published them as a separate work, along with the fourth passacaglia interlude.
Of its over two dozen studio recordings compared to four for the opera itself , one in particular has special emotional resonance — Leonard Bernstein opened his final concert DG, with the Four Sea Interludes, thus coming full circle from having led the American premiere of the opera 45 years earlier near the start of his career.
It begins with a gentle flute melody which Stevenson likens to the descent of a soaring seagull, and then adds rippling sixteenth-note figures in the harp, viola and clarinet that could be the waves lapping the shore Cochrane , birds wheeling away from the reeds Ben Hogwood or perhaps a gentle breeze.
Robert Donnington points out a hint of unease in the underlying friction of major and minor thirds, but Carpenter alludes to an ecological analog, as the discords in the bass are absorbed by the purity of the higher instruments which play only white notes. Garbutt finds a parallel to the storm in King Lear with multiple levels of natural, pictorial, symbolic and psychological meanings.
To Howard, the commanding conclusion of emphatic chords signals "fire and brimstone collapsing in a heap like an overrun sea-wall. Ironically, although the most formally rigid, it seems the hardest to construe. Through 39 iterations of the basic motif, the music begins as a somber lament, becomes increasingly animated with melodic fragments, then turns thoughtful, then insistent, and culminates by rising to an unruly headache.
After completing his formal education, Britten expanded the scope of his practical knowledge by working at the General Post Office Film Unit, where he produced background soundtrack music for a wide variety of moods, using diverse ensembles. As the subjects of the movies were aspects of British life, Young suggests that this fostered an appreciation that musicians belong to society and that their music should reflect social concerns.
On his own, Britten became best known for several song cycles that attained a reputation for the sensitivity with which he set the English language to music. Beyond his personal development, Britten was influenced by numerous outside models, all of which inform the libretto and score for Peter Grimes. Among operatic paradigms, two seem especially pertinent. At one point he had wanted to study with Alban Berg, whose Wozzeck , although more tightly structured, featured a cruelly-abused social outcast failing in love, driven to murder and ultimately drowning himself, a musical interlude summing up his psyche and a devastating final scene depicting the indifference of society to his personal tragedy.
The most important groundwork for Peter Grimes was Paul Bunyan, a "choral operetta" based on the legendary American pioneer folk hero and intended for Broadway but stalled by harsh press criticism after a brief initial trial run at Columbia University. Auden The libretto was by W. Auden, with whom Britten had extensively collaborated on film, radio and theatre projects, who was known for his eclectic range, technical polish, ironic tone and political bent, and who bore much of the brunt of the critical censure.
America is what you do, America is I and you, America is what you choose to make it. Francesca Zambello hails its overall thematic reflection of the American spirit — that the establishment of democracy requires that individual and personal freedom be subsumed into the interests of a community — as a plea for tolerance and acceptance of difference sorely lacking in a Europe on the brink of war. Britten considered revisions but lost interest after returning to England and worked up a final draft only at the very end of his life.
Even so, Porter notes that the failure of Paul Bunyon was therapeutic in that it led Britten to escape the domination of librettists so that henceforth all his operas would be tailored entirely upon his ideas, inspiration and minutely worked-out requirements; as Britten put it: "I felt that I have learned lots about what not to write for the theatre.
Koussevitzky commissioned the project, to be dedicated to his late wife, and provided a much-needed monetary advance, with the understanding that he would give the world premiere at his Berkshire Music Festival, with British performances to follow.
But when the Festival was postponed Koussevitzky generously ceded the premiere to Britain, where it was given on June 7, But Powell recalls that many in the company held out for an established classic or at least a patriotic new work and rebelled at the seeming inaptness of a first opera with an off-beat story and innovative music by a young conscientious objector who had fled his country. Cross persisted and her gamble paid off spectacularly, even prompting a wave of chauvanism.
Proclaiming that "a new master has really arrived," Edmund Wilson called Britten "an unmistakable new talent" and his encounter with the opera "an astonishing, and even electrifying, experience" and praised the score as cast in a quintessentially English idiom, free of foreign influences and thus "very different from anything we have been used to. Yet not all reviews were ecstatic. While the Guardian praised the score as "full of vivid suggestion and action, sometimes rising to a level of white-hot poetry," it found the libretto "overloaded with scrappy and not always telling incident, and too much of it is cast in an unreal language," a seemingly curious critique of a work in such a heavily stylized art form.
A local review by Scott Goddard proclaimed it "an astonishing work," praised the singing and acting as "intensely moving" but found the music "fascinating as much when it fails" which he declined to elaborate.
Following the August American premiere, led by a budding Leonard Bernstein, Koussevitzky proclaimed it the greatest opera since Carmen , even though Britten scorned the presentation as an unprofessional student production as indeed it unabashedly was, with all roles taken by students at the Berkshire Music Center.
Perhaps its most surprising popularity was in East Germany where, Brett notes, it was presented as "a harrowing but authentic picture of the degeneracy of life in Britain. Although broadly couched, all such comments clearly can refer only to serious opera, as they deliberately and perhaps snobbishly ignore the dazzling brilliance — and unflagging popularity — of both lyrics and music of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon.
Lamenting the world-wide demise of the genre since Turandot 20 years before, Shaw-Taylor proclaimed Peter Grimes an "all-conquering" work and "a fresh hope, not only for English, but for European opera. Matthew Boyden credited it for encouraging Covent Garden and other institutions to embrace new repertoire and for spurring Michael Tippett, William Walton and other British composers to write operas.
Stemming from Peter Grimes, nearly all have a common thematic thread of individuals isolated from and chafing against the oppression of society and its hypocritical institutions. Even so, Britten mostly repressed his personal concerns with pacifism and homosexuality the latter simmering in Billy Budd and then fully emerging in his last opera, Death in Venice.
Peter Grimes has been favored with only four complete studio recordings. This may seem rather scant in light of its reputation and popularity, yet perhaps is to be expected when considering the overwhelming predilection of opera audiences for the core repertoire spanning the era from Mozart through Puccini.
Sea Interludes (4) from Peter Grimes, for orchestra, Op. 33a
‘Storm’ Interlude from ‘Peter Grimes’ by Benjamin Britten
Four Sea Interludes (from the opera “Peter Grimes”)