Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
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.
“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 before he goes down with his sinking boat.
— Howard Posner