Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes (with video)
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (= piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd = E-flat), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, bells, bass drum, cymbals, gong, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 24, 1949, Benjamin Britten conducting
These orchestral pieces from Benjamin Britten’s first successful opera, Peter Grimes, are scene changes by a master of the scene change. They not only take the listener from one physical location to another (at times seeming to go out to sea and back), but also explore the turmoil in the characters’ minds as coastal villagers hound the misanthropic loner fisherman Grimes to self-destruction after the mysterious, but accidental, deaths of two of his apprentices. Because each Interlude in the opera leads into the following scene without pause, Britten rewrote their endings to make them self-contained concert pieces.
“Dawn” bridges the Prologue (following a duet between Peter and Ellen Orford, the schoolteacher he hopes to marry) and the early morning of Act I. Britten divides his orchestra into three choirs: flutes and violins play a high, largely static melody, against which the harp, violas, and clarinets interject shimmering arpeggios. The rest of the orchestra interrupts periodically with ominously surging chords.
In “Sunday Morning,” which begins Act II, large church bells are suggested by clanging thirds from opposing pairs of horns, and later by actual bells. Woodwinds, strings, and trumpets represent smaller bells, while a flute evokes waking birds. A sweeping violin melody at the end is, in the opera, Ellen’s song greeting the morning.
“Moonlight,” which again bridges night and the following day, is the prologue to Act III, after the death of Grimes’ second apprentice. It is an unsettling blend of motion and stasis, built around the “second inversion” chord (a major chord with the fifth at the bottom), which in traditional harmony is a consonance that functions like a dissonance because it doesn’t feel at rest. In classical concertos it’s the chord on which everything pauses for the cadenza before the end, and it retains a feeling of penultimate-ness. Stringing many such chords together creates a feeling of instability.
The Passacaglia is a telescoped version of two sections from Act II. A stark seven-note figure in the bass is repeated 39 times under a series of variations on a haunting theme introduced by the viola. The beginnings and ends of the variations don’t synchronize with the repetitions of the ground bass; indeed, they go their tumultuous way almost in competition with it. In the opera, the Passacaglia propels the action into the scene in which the second apprentice falls to his death. The concert version skips the scene and, in effect, jumps right to the end of Act II, where viola and celesta depict Grimes’ now empty hut.
“Storm,” from Act I, begins with Grimes outdoors as a storm approaches and ends in a pub where townspeople wait out the same storm. The consoling theme heard when the storm music subsides is the melody to which Grimes has just sung “What harbor shelters peace, away from tidal waves, away from storms?” It will be also the last thing Peter sings in Act III before he goes down with his sinking boat.
— Howard Posner