Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten and Peter Grimes

Certainly the greatest single composer of opera in England since Handel, Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk in 1913. His was a solidly middle-class upbringing in the seaside town where early piano lessons stimulated a natural inclination to composition. Early connections and lessons with Frank Bridge and John Ireland (the latter at the Royal College of Music which Britten attended) were influential, although Britten’s strong musical personality and intense curiosity about contemporary styles led him to eventually leave his mentors behind. After a trip to Europe with his mother after graduation and experiencing the musical excellence in foreign centers such as Vienna and Basel left him desperate on the subject of the current state of musical and cultural life in England. Meanwhile early compositions such as the Phantasy, Sinfonietta, Simple Symphony and A Boy Was Born raised the awareness of the British public, leading to a BBC broadcast, his lifelong association with the music publishing firm of Boosey & Hawkes and work at the GPO Film Unit scoring documentaries. At GPO he met the poet W.H. Auden who was to have an influential role in his life at this time. It was during this same period, in 1937, that he met his eventual life partner Peter Pears at a rehearsal of the BBC Singers for one of his choral works. Pears, a tenor, was to provide important emotional and creative support for Britten’s works, not only creating (and inspiring) most of the tenor roles in the composer’s operas but helping to form and ‘birth’ the works as well.

Britten’s homosexuality and association with left-wing politics made his continued presence in England at the beginning of the Second World War tremendously difficult. His pacifism was particularly problematic, especially for a public person in a country rallying its people to form a united front against encroaching Fascism. Britten, Pears and poet W.H. Auden all left the country in 1939, first for Canada, and then the United States. It was there, in Escondido (cf. “The Literary Source for Peter Grimes: George Crabbe’s The Borough,” the companion article in Operapaedia), that the first idea for an opera on the subject of Peter Grimes, a character from George Crabbe’s The Borough, came to him. Upon mentioning the subject to Serge Koussevitsky during a visit to Boston, the conductor offered $1,000 (a tidy sum at the time!) in order to fund the completion of the work. Composition didn’t actually begin until Britten was fully satisfied with the libretto but he began in earnest early in 1944, knowing that Koussevitsky had promised a performance at the Berkshire Music Festival in Massachusetts that summer. As it turned out, the festival that year was postponed until the end of the war. So a British production by the Sadler’s Wells company was considered for the summer of 1945.

Quotes from Britten’s letters to Pears (to be found in Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent biography on the composer, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1992) give a glimpse into the compositional process. Very early on, he writes: “Well, at last I have broken the spell and got down to work on P.G. I have been at it for two days solidly and got the greater part of the Prologue done. It is very difficult to keep that amount of recitative moving, without going round & round in circles, I find—but I think I’ve managed it.” On the 9th of April he writes: “Grimes is being such a brute at the moment. Still, I am over the worst now, and I can at least see ahead.” But in June he writes: “My bloody opera stinks, & that’s all there is to it. But I dare say that I shall be able to de-odorize it before too long.” Working at Snape was difficult for him that year as his home was not terribly far from an air base. The constant comings and goings of Royal Air Force fighters into the European theatre provided not-so-welcome sonic accompaniment. The opera’s first sketch was finally finished in the fall of 1944 when he immediately began on the orchestration.

While the composition process was coming to a close, Britten had to engage Sadler’s Wells’ board in order to get a final commitment on the production. It was certainly not a ‘done deal’ as speculation as to the subject matter varied widely, depending on whom one was talking to. But a sing-through by Britten for the directors convinced them that the piece was worth doing and they began to search about for the best physical venue (the Sadler’s Wells company, because of the war, was constantly searching about for different theatres in which to present their seasons). Rehearsals began in Manchester, where the company was on tour, and continued to be rehearsed in cities that the company happened to be visiting. It was on this tour that Pears, already chosen for the title role, helped Britten re-write much of the title role in order to help fit his voice more perfectly, and where other parts of the libretto, particularly the mad scene in Act III, were re-written with the help of Ronald Duncan. (The official librettist, Montagu Slater, was infuriated by these changes and eventually published his original libretto on his own). As the date of the premiere came closer, nerves and tempers ruled the company until June 7th, the night of the opening at the Sadler’s Wells’ home theatre in Islington in the North of London. The production of Peter Grimes was to mark the official re-opening of their theatre.

The opera was an enormous success, winning over those inside and outside of the company who were finally convinced that Britten was a composer to be dealt with and that he had created a masterwork. The curtain calls at the first performance were endless and much praise was given to Pears in the title role. Britten wrote to Imogen Holst about a month after the premiere: “I must confess that I am very pleased with the way that it seems to ‘come over the foot-lights,’ and also with the way the audience takes it, & what is perhaps more, returns night after night to take it again! I think the occasion is actually a greater one than either Sadler’s Wells or me, I feel. Perhaps it is an omen for English Opera in the future.” An omen, indeed.

The first American performance of Peter Grimes occurred, appropriately enough, at Koussevitsky’s Berkshire Festival in Tanglewood, August 1946, with his illustrious student Leonard Bernstein conducting.

The Literary Source for Peter Grimes: George Crabbe’s The Borough

It is with great pride that music lovers in San Diego County can point to the sun-baked, inland city of Escondido as being the place where the first seed of an idea for Peter Grimes took root in the imagination of Benjamin Britten. The composer and his lifelong companion, the tenor Peter Pears, had left England for the United States at the outset of the war in 1939. Their status as conscientious objectors during a time of great peril for England was a source of some criticism in the British press; undaunted, they followed the poet W.H. Auden and others into self-imposed exile. They spent much of their time on the east coast but in 1941 they were invited by the duo-piano team of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, who were summering in Escondido, to join them in California. Britten, who had cut his composer’s teeth scoring documentaries for the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit, hoped for work in Hollywood but nothing came of it. He did receive and fulfill a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge to write a string quartet for a Los Angeles premiere which took up much of his time. A letter dated July 29th, however, gives us a clue that much more was going on in the deep recesses of his composer’s imagination: “We’ve just re-discovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited—maybe an opera one day--!”

The reference to Suffolk relates to his childhood home at Lowestoft, overlooking the North Sea where storm, wind and ocean combine to wreak havoc on the rocky coast. But the poetry of George Crabbe relates to the Suffolk native poet whose work The Borough contains the pivotal characters that were eventually to populate the opera Peter Grimes. Crabbe (1754-1832) was a poet and clergyman who was widely regarded during his time, a friend of William Wordsworth, Walter Scott and greatly admired by Lord Byron for his unsentimental verse. The Borough was published in 1810 while he was chaplain to the Duke of Rutland in Leicestershire. It is a collection of 24 ‘letters’ which describe various inhabitants of the town in which Crabbe himself was born, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, about an hour’s drive south of Britten’s hometown of Lowestoft. Letter XXII is the story of Grimes, told in heroic rhyming couplets, about a stubborn, brutal fisherman haunted by his own rough upbringing who perpetuated the abuse on three of his young apprentices. At the end of the poem he dies, haunted by his father and the ghosts of the boys who died under his rough treatment.

Here is an excerpt from the poem which most parallels the situation of the boy apprentice in the opera:

“Some few in town observed in Peter's trap
A boy, with jacket blue and woolen cap;
But none inquired how Peter used the rope,
Or what the bruise, that made the stripling stoop;
None could the ridges on his back behold,
None sought his shiv'ring in the winter's cold;
None put the question,--"Peter, dost thou give
The boy his food?--What, man! the lad must live:
Consider, Peter, let the child have bread,
He'll serve thee better if he's stroked and fed."
None reason'd thus--and some, on hearing cries,
Said calmly, ‘Grimes is at his exercise.’”

Britten and Pears cobbled together a synopsis of the proposed opera on the ship back to England in the spring of 1942. One of the first things Britten did on his return to the UK was to contract Montagu Slater, playwright, poet and journalist for whose theatrical work the composer had written music some years before, to be the librettist for Grimes. The main character went through a number of transformations, from cold brute through repressed homosexual to victim of societal judgment. Slater presumably worked from the Britten-Pears synopsis, but opened up the libretto to a raft of characters suggested by other sections of Crabbe’s Borough, creating a kind of community within which Grimes’ actions receive a context. Even after demanding some changes from Slater and accepting them, Britten continued to tinker with the libretto as he wrote the score, finally coming up with a text that pleased him. During this evolution the main character became more complicated, more generously textured than before; Grimes became, in Pears’ words,
“…‘an introspective, an artist’, a sensitive and gifted individual who is misunderstood and rejected by society.” (Benjamin Britten: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Charles Scribner’s Sons-New York, 1992)

The Music of Peter Grimes

Britten as a composer can be difficult to categorize, as each of his operas is unique in their musical approach to the solving of quite different dramatic problems. He was certainly eclectic, pulling from a broad palette of compositional techniques, forms and styles in order to express himself. Yet his music is easily identifiable because of its strong personality. With regard to Peter Grimes we can readily hear that we’re dealing with a composer with a considerable amount of experience in film music and scoring for radio plays. There are a number of instances in the opera where one experiences the musical equivalent of a ‘cross-fade’, moving from one scene into another seamlessly with the music constantly thrusting forward. In other words, the physical set changes from one scene to the next while the orchestra bridges the visual gap with music that moves us from one environment to another. This takes some compositional ingenuity. The music from the previous scene must come to a satisfactory close without a sense of completion, and the music for the new scene must enter almost imperceptibly and establish the new ‘feel’ quickly and forcefully.

An obvious example of this musical cross-fading occurs at the end of the Prologue, set in the borough’s Moot Hall where an inquest into the death of Grimes’ boy apprentice is being held. After it is found that the boy died in ‘accidental circumstances’, Peter and Ellen the schoolmistress are left alone. Peter complains that he will always be under suspicion by the gossips in the borough, and Ellen tries to comfort him. This is all sung in an unaccompanied recitative for the two voices, singing in distinctly opposite keys (this helps to establish Grimes’ isolation from the village). As soon as their phrase comes to a quiet close the first violins in the orchestra introduce the First Interlude. The curtain closes on the Moot Hall then opens on the scene outside the Hall, a street by the sea. This orchestral interlude perfectly sets the tone of early morning as the borough awakens to the sounds of seagulls and the calm ocean lapping gently against the dock. This technique is obviously cinematic and occurs a number of other places throughout the opera.

The whole score is built in order to constantly remind the audience of Grimes’ “otherness”, his role as an outcast in the village. Britten often gives his title character wide interval leaps in the vocal line, as in the soliloquy “What harbour shelters peace, away from tidal waves, away from storms”. It begins with a leap of a major ninth, seeming to symbolize the wide gap that exists between himself and the rest of society. His first utterance (in the Prologue during the inquest), as he is sworn in to testify, is typical. Mr. Swallow, the mayor and coroner of the town, reads the oath (“I swear to almighty God…”) in quick, short note values. Peter repeats the oath with longer, more deliberate note values an octave above Swallow’s pitch level. Again the separation between Peter and other beings is emphasized as the two voices begin to overlap each other with complete independence one from the other. When the villagers take shelter from a storm at the local pub, someone begins singing a round in order to perk up their spirits: “Old Joe has gone fishing”. The round is taken up enthusiastically by everyone gathered but when Peter enters the rhythm is ‘wrong’, the timing ‘off’. The tuneful round falls apart. He can’t keep step with any other human being in his acquaintance. His very existence seems to be an affront to the well-ordered universe within which he finds himself.

Something else that sets Grimes the character apart from the villagers is that most of his solo utterances are monologues or soliloquies, not true arias. They are closer to the tradition of the great Verdi ariosos from Rigoletto, Falstaff or Otello. They are freer in shape than a closed aria (which has a clear beginning and end) and have far more resonance in the drama than a formal set-piece. That’s not to say that there are not real tunes in the opera. Some of the choral melodies in particular are quite memorable, from the opening “Oh hang at open doors the net” to “Old Joe has gone fishing” and “Grimes is at his exercise”.

Britten, like other great composers of theatre music, is a painter of text and scene. The so-called Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (often performed by orchestras in concert outside the context of the opera) draw quite specific and literal portraits of the time and place. The first, evoking dawn on a street beside the sea, has already been alluded to. The second interlude moves us from Act I, scene i into the storm which drives the inhabitants to the pub for protection. It is certainly one of the most musically exciting storms in all opera. The third takes us into the scene on the beach with Ellen and the boy; it is Sunday morning and in the music we hear allusions to the ringing of church bells and their overlaying of sonic elements associated with the sea. These interludes hearken to the influence of Berg’s Wozzeck (one of Britten’s favorite works), similar in length, ‘feel’ and purpose, not just providing for movement from one scene to another but providing an emotional or psychological context for the upcoming scene.

All in all, Peter Grimes is a remarkable statement from a young composer just beginning his operatic career.

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