Skip to page content

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd and 1st = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (3rd = piccolo trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, gong, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, tenor drum, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 14, 1946, Leopold Stokowski conducting (Passacaglia); November 24, 1949, Benjamin Britten conducting (Four Sea Interludes).

Benjamin Britten conceived Peter Grimes, his first full-scale opera, right here in Southern California. Britten and his life-long partner, the tenor Peter Pears, had come to the States in 1939 as conscientious objectors at the outbreak of World War II. Following the unsuccessful premiere of Britten’s operetta Paul Bunyan at Columbia University in 1941, they decided to quit New York for the Southland, moving to Escondido. It was there that the two read an essay by E. M. Forster introducing the 18th-century British poet George Crabbe, among whose works was a poem entitled The Borough. One of its characters is a fisherman, Peter Grimes, who, in the most morally bankrupt fashion imaginable, buys orphans from the workhouse only to beat them or work them to death.

Britten and Pears, whose nostalgia for England was only increased by their discovery of Crabbe’s poetry, returned home in 1942, hammering out a scenario based on The Borough during the trans-Atlantic journey. They took Crabbe’s Grimes, a product of the ills of an industrializing Britain, and transformed him into a more modern type, an outsider who is both a product of the society in which he lives and a victim of it.

With its subject and composer, Peter Grimes was the first truly English opera to gain international recognition since Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 1689. For the more than 250 years that intervened, composers from the European continent dominated London’s operatic life – first Handel, then Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. Peter Grimes was a sensation, and the work immediately captured the popular imagination. The critic of the New Statesman, reflecting on the opera’s impact on British culture in the summer of 1945 related an experience that reveals the opera’s popularity. “I can vouch for the truth of the following incidents on a single-track bus journey last Saturday. They seem almost to amount to proof that we are becoming a nation of high-brows. A friend boarded a 38 bus at Green Park, asked the conductor whether he went past Sadler’s Wells. ‘Yes, I should say I do,’ he replied. ‘I wish I could go inside instead. That will be threepence for Peter Grimes.’ All the way to Roseberry Avenue, a young man sitting next to my friend whistled the Tarantella from Walton’s Façade; it is not an easy tune to whistle and the whistler did not get off at Sadler’s Wells. But my friend did, and as he left the bus he heard the conductor shouting at the top of a loud voice: ‘Sadler’s Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman!’”

Part of what made the opera so successful was Britten’s ability to intricately convey the development of the plot and characters through purely orchestral means. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opera’s six interludes, five of which became the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia, a suite of excerpts that effectively brings the drama and setting of the opera into the concert hall.

“Dawn” comes at the beginning of the opera’s first act, which opens on a street by the sea in Aldeburgh, a small fishing hamlet on the Suffolk coast. The interlude begins with a gentle, clear melody in the violins answered by the harp and winds over shimmering strings, and this alternates with a majestic brass figure. The interlude evokes the stillness of the morning sea, decked with mist, before high tide, and its two motifs are the basis of the opening of the act’s first scene, in which the townspeople begin another day of fishing.

“Sunday” opens with an imitation of church bells followed by a scurrying wind figure as latecomers hurry to church at the opening of the second act’s first scene. The activity dies down, and Britten introduces the theme that Ellen, Peter’s only defender in the town, sings at the beginning of the scene. The interlude performs a function similar to the ritornello in Baroque opera, introducing the thematic material taken up by the singer in the ensuing passage.

With its warm string tones supported by the horns, “Moonlight” exquisitely conjures the summer evening setting of the first scene of Act Three. As the interlude progresses, Britten enriches the texture, first by adding trumpets, then with a high-lying passage for the strings. Eventually, he uses the full orchestra, which is subdued by an ever-more insistent xylophone. In the opera, this interlude adds another layer to the separation between outside and inside – the mysterious nobility of the moonlit night contrasts sharply with the lusty barn dance inside the town’s gathering place, Moot Hall, that follows.

The “Storm,” which occurs between scenes one and two of Act One, is an orchestral tour-de-force. The critic of London’s Times, reviewing the opera’s Sadler’s Wells premiere (which took place on June 7, 1945) wrote, “In this entr’acte Britten has written salt-water music of unequaled intensity – the sting and the crash and the scream of great waters have never before been caught and translated into music with such fidelity, not even in The Flying Dutchman, for this is not onomatopoeic imitation but a universalized image of the sea itself in tempest.” The interlude thrillingly contrasts the violent outbursts of the hurricane-force winds and rain lambasting the coast with the storm raging inside Peter’s mind, represented by an orchestral rendition of his aria “What harbor shelters peace?” in the center of the interlude. The interlude also bridges the two scenes by recalling the haunting music of Peter’s aria from the first scene and introducing the “Storm” music, which recurs throughout the second scene.

The suite closes with the Passacaglia, which falls between the first and second scenes of Act Two, as Peter and his latest apprentice ascend the cliff to the fisherman’s hut. The Passacaglia opens with the ground bass played pizzicato by the basses. The interlude builds in intensity as the pair march toward the hut – the Passacaglia could be likened to a funeral march, for, as Peter and the boy leave the hut to go fishing, the child slips and falls to his death, an event that seals Peter’s fate as well. Suspected by the town of killing yet another apprentice, Grimes takes his boat out for the last time, scuttles it, and drowns.

John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He is currently in Berlin, studying the 18th-century German opera audience.