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Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes, Op. 33
Benjamin Britten (Lord Britten of Aldeburgh)
b. Lowestoft, England / November 22, 1913;
d. Aldeburgh, England / December 4, 1976

“For that, as I see it is our job. To be useful to the living.” – Benjamin Britten

Britten made himself “useful” (a typically modest description) in many ways. Other composers have possessed the industry to work in as wide a range of creation as he. He numbers among the rare, precious few who have also been blessed with the talent, imagination and sensitivity to write outstanding compositions in each genre.

He adopted an abundantly communicative style, fundamentally conservative but regularly sparked by adventurousness. Within it, he composed everything from opera, oratorio, orchestral and chamber works, to film scores, folk song arrangements and music aimed without condescension at children. Perhaps his greatest gift was a superlative skill for setting words. Add to these his formidable abilities as pianist, scholar, administrator and conductor (of other composers’ music in addition to his own), and you truly have a figure for the ages. 

As conscientious objectors to taking part in the Second World War, Britten and his companion, tenor Peter Pears, spent the early years of the war in the United States. While staying in California in 1941, Britten’s interest was piqued by an article in the BBC periodical The Listener. It was a transcription of distinguished author E. M. Forster’s radio talk about English poet George Crabbe (1754-1832). Britten immediately sought out The Borough (1810), Crabbe’s collection of poems about life in the fishing villages of Suffolk county on England’s east coast. It inspired the composer, a native of that region, to use one section, about the doomed fisherman Peter Grimes, as the basis for his first grand opera. It also intensified his homesickness. “I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked,” he recalled many years later. “I had become without roots.”

While he and Pears waited for passage home across the Nazi-infested North Atlantic, he attended a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of his recent work, Sinfonia da Requiem. Impressed with its powerful sense of drama, BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky asked him why he hadn’t written a full opera (his only previous stage work had been the operetta Paul Bunyan). Britten told him about the George Crabbe project. He lamented that he didn’t have the means to sustain himself through the several years’ work that would be necessary to compose it. Koussevitzky secured $1000 in commission funding from the foundation he had established to honour his recently-deceased wife. He asked Britten to dedicate the opera to her, and promised to have it produced at the Berkshire Festival in Massachusetts. 

Britten and Pears moulded Crabbe’s material into stageworthy form before and during their return to England in the spring of 1942. Britten’s chosen librettist, Montagu Slater, then set to work on the full text. Britten completed Peter Grimes, as it was known by then, in February 1945. With the Berkshire Festival temporarily suspended, and Koussevitzky having given his blessing for a première in England, Britten chose London’s Sadler’s Wells Opera Company to stage the début production.

Numerous hurdles had to be overcome. Some of the cast found the music quite difficult, while certain of the company’s directors voiced doubts about the suitability of making their first post-war production a contemporary work by a composer who hadn’t proven himself in opera. Nevertheless, the début, given on June 7, 1945 – just a month after the end of the war in Europe – scored a sensational success. Critic Eric Walter White spoke for many when he wrote, “All who where present realized that Peter Grimes, as well as being a masterpiece of its kind, marked the beginning of an operatic career of great promise and perhaps also the dawn of a new period when English opera would flourish in its own right.” The triumph was quickly repeated abroad. Together with selected works of Strauss and Puccini, it is one of the few twentieth-century operas to earn a secure place in the international repertory. 

“Peter Grimes is a great piece of theatre,” Britten scholar Donald Mitchell wrote, “and it is one of a handful of works…in which the English spirit and the English scene are captured in music. Yet, because of its treatment of a theme which is universal in its appeal to humanity, it will hold its place in the admiration and affection of opera-goers who have never set eyes on the real Moot Hall nor heard the wallop of the sea on the shingle at Aldeburgh.”

The title character, whom Crabbe based on an actual person, underwent significant changes from the poet’s original, sadistic conception. “A central feeling for us,” Britten said, “was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation. As conscientious objectors we were out of it. We couldn’t say we suffered physically, but naturally we experienced tremendous tension. I think it was partly this feeling which led us to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is, rather than the villain he was in Crabbe.”

Britten’s score brims over with memorable themes and sharply drawn characterizations. The orchestra plays a pivotal role, nowhere more crucially than in the interludes that introduce and bridge the scenes. Britten edited and re-sequenced four of them, brief impressionist tone poems portraying the moods of the sea, into a frequently performed concert suite.

Peter Grimes, Op. 33
Prologue
Act One
Act Two
Act Three

 

Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson


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