Four Sea Interludes
Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s first opera, is about a fisherman in Aldeburgh on England’s eastern coast, a misanthropic loner who is hounded to self-destruction by the townspeople after the mysterious, but accidental, deaths of two of his apprentices. The opera’s premiere as the first postwar production of the Sadler’s Wells Opera was immediately recognized as a landmark for both Britten and English opera.
In the opera the Sea Interludes are scene changes. Britten was extraordinarily adept at making a virtue of the necessity of getting smoothly from one set to another, and his interludes not only take the listener from one physical location to another (giving the impression at times of going out to sea and back), but also go inside the characters’ minds, which throughout the opera are full of turmoil and doubt. There is not a bar in the interludes, no matter how beautiful, that is free of foreboding. They are integrated into the opera’s action, leading into the next scene without pause. In making concert pieces out of them, Britten put them in a different sequence and changed some endings to make them self-contained.
“Dawn” is the first interlude in the opera, a bridge between the Prologue (an inquest into the death of Peter’s first apprentice) and the outdoor early morning of Act I. It follows a duet in which Peter and Ellen Orford, the schoolteacher he hopes to marry, sing about the hurt he suffers from the rumors about him. Britten divides his orchestra into three choirs that present three elements: 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.
“Sunday Morning” comprises the prologue to, and first moments of, 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 melody in the violins at the end is, in the opera, Ellen Orford’s song greeting the morning.
“Moonlight,” which again bridges night and the following day, is the prologue to Act III. It is a curious and unsettling blend of motion and stasis, with moving parts against drones in other parts. It is 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 was the chord on which everything stopped for the cadenza before the big finish, and retains a feeling of being penultimate. A movement in which many such chords are strung together will necessarily have a subtle feeling of instability.
The “Storm” comes in the middle of Act I, bridging a scene in which Grimes waits outside for an oncoming storm and a scene in which the townspeople wait out the storm in a pub. The sweeping theme heard when the storm music begins to subside has the feel of safety, and indeed it is to this music that Grimes had sung “What harbor shelters peace, away from tidal waves, away from storms? What harbor can embrace terrors and tragedies?” in the previous scene. It will be also the last thing Peter sings in Act III before he goes down with his sinking boat.
— Howard Posner