Britten: Peter Grimes, Opus 33

Peter Grimes, an Opera in Three Acts and a Prologue Derived from the Poem of George Crabbe, Opus 33

Benjamin Edward Britten was born November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, and died December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. He composed his opera Peter Grimes, to a libretto by Montagu Slater, from January 1944 through February 1945, and it was first staged June 7, 1945, at Sadler’s Wells Opera Theatre, London, with Reginald Goodall conducting, tenor Peter Pears in the title role, and soprano Joan Cross as Ellen Orford. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The score calls for an orchestral complement of two flutes (doubling piccolos), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets (second doubling E-flat clarinet), two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, rattle, whip, tambourine, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, gong, celesta, organ, harp, and strings. Performance time: about two-and-a-half hours.

During the season now ending, the music world has celebrated the centennial of the birth of Benjamin Britten, who was happy to point out that he was born on the Feast Day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. He studied piano seriously as a child and soon took up the viola as well. The noted composer and teacher Frank Bridge encountered the thirteen-year-old musician at the Norwich Festival and was sufficiently intrigued by his talent to accept him as a private composition student, instilling the technical grounding that would help him achieve an eminent position among the century’s English composers.

In 1930, Britten entered London’s Royal College of Music, where the composer John Ireland and the pianists Arthur Benjamin and Harold Samuel continued to refine his musicianship. He still worked with Bridge on the side, and this proved an important aspect of his education; while his conservatory studies concentrated on “the classics,” Bridge kept steering his young charge toward more up-to-date developments in scores by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. This exposure to modernism proved critical to Britten’s development, not because he ended up sounding like any of those composers but rather because it equipped him to rebel against the musical aesthetic his generation inherited, that of Elgar and, most directly, the “English pastoral tradition” typified by the more nostalgic or folk-infused works of Vaughan Williams. While this style would not do for Britten, he did maintain a distinct reverence for heritage and tradition. Britten turned often to esteemed English authors for texts, and he produced dozens of arrangements of authentic folk songs from the British Isles. Among Britten’s most formidable achievements was that he remained rooted in the musical tradition of his nation but nonetheless pushed boldly forward. While many of his finest scores sound instantly British, they also sound resolutely of the twentieth century.

Having completed his conservatory curriculum and garnered some notable honors to serve as imprimaturs, Britten set about earning a living through his music. To this end, he found a job as a composer in the General Post Office Film Unit, writing film scores for postal-related documentaries. This proved to be not just gainful employment but also an aesthetic experience far more decisive than one might have predicted. The GPO Film Unit, it turned out, was a hotbed of personal escapade and professional creativity that also included the poet W.H. Auden (the unit’s kingpin) and such other writers as Christopher Isherwood and Montagu Slater. Many of the people involved were left-wing pacifists and several were as close to being openly gay as was possible at the time. In March 1937, Britten met a young tenor named Peter Pears, and within a year they had moved in together, beginning a relationship that lasted to the end of Britten’s life. (Following the death of Britten—by then Lord Britten of Aldeburgh—Queen Elizabeth II sent a formal letter of condolence to Pears.) In 1939, Britten and Pears left for America to wait out the war.

While in the United States, Britten composed his first opera, Paul Bunyan, a collaboration with the similarly expatriate Auden. It was produced at Columbia University in 1941 and was received with chuckling amusement by the audience but derision from the critics. Though a far cry from Britten’s ensuing operas, it represented an important first step toward the lyric stage. Also during his American years he became engrossed in the works of the British poet George Crabbe (1754-1832). He was first alerted to Crabbe by an article E.M. Forster published in May 1941 in the magazine The Listener, and then that summer Britten and Pears stumbled across a volume of Crabbe’s poetry in a Los Angeles bookshop. Crabbe’s lengthy poem “The Borough” included the skeleton of the tale of Peter Grimes, an unsavory East Anglian fisherman who took on pauper lads as helpers and mistreated them. The people of the borough turned a blind eye:

Some few in town observed in Peter’s trap
A boy, with jacket blue and woolen cap;
But none enquired how Peter used the rope,
Or what the bruise, that made the stripling stoop . . .
None reason’d thus—and some, on hearing cries,
Said calmly, “Grimes is at his exercise.”

The apprentice died, and so did his successor, and also the one after that. Finally Grimes was hauled in to the town court and forbidden to enlist further boys. He grew even less stable than he already was, and eventually died insane, haunted by the ghosts of the boys who had perished in his service. Britten later reported that when he read this tale, “I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked.”

Where he belonged, one surmises, was England. He and Pears returned home in April 1942. It was a perilous move at that point in war, and they were carefully scrutinized as potential servicemen. Eventually a judge ruled that, instead of carrying out non-combatant war-related service, the greater national benefit lay in their continuing to work as musicians.

What he lacked, one infers, was a serious opera, and most likely a serious opera on a topic deeply rooted in his native land. The first step would be to develop Crabbe’s bare-bones narrative into a full-fledged operatic libretto. Britten and Pears began by presenting the scenario to Isherwood, who felt certain it wouldn’t work as an opera and accordingly declined the offer to serve as librettist. They then approached Slater, another Film Unit colleague, and he accepted the challenge. Slater’s libretto was in place by the end of 1942 and Britten undertook the composition between January 1944 and February 1945. At the end of three years’ work, Peter Grimes emerged as a compelling tale bursting with what would become “Brittenesque” fingerprints: sympathetic portrayal of a social outcast, undertones of sexual ambiguity and abuse, suggestions of the corruption of innocence, an uneasy awareness of moral haziness as part of the human condition, the hypocrisy of an intolerant community given to scapegoating, and a leading tenor part crafted specifically for Pears. The score was a panoply of the possibilities open to a mid-century composer, modernist in its idiom yet not of the twelve-tone school, using harmony both to suggest horror and to offer comfort. It was not an opera in the Wagnerian lineage but rather a piece more in the mold of nineteenth-century “number operas,” with defined expanses of arias, ensembles, and choruses, all balanced into a compelling dramatic flow. It was, furthermore, an opera rooted in place. The fictional village in which it is set is redolent of Aldeburgh, which became Britten’s home, its claustrophobia scarcely relieved by the omnipresent ocean. The villagers are English to the core, not just dramatically but also musically; when, near the end of Act One, Grimes bursts into the pub and astonishes everyone with his outburst of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”—the revelation of a visionary or the raving of a maniac, or both—the locals restore normalcy by singing a tune that anchors them in their everyday reality, the folkish sea shanty “Old Joe has gone fishing.” 

A commission for the opera arrived from conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who had recently set up his Koussevitzky Music Foundation in memory of his departed wife, Nathalie. His plan was to introduce the resulting opera with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood during the summer of 1944. When the war upset the festival’s planning, Koussevitzky relinquished his claim on the piece in favor of the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company in London, which was able to promise a quicker premiere. (When Tanglewood was able to mount it, in 1946, Koussevitzky assigned the conducting to his protégé Leonard Bernstein.) Sadler’s Wells had managed to remain active throughout the war. Although its theater in London was requisitioned by the British military, its director, Joan Cross, kept the company going through six years of touring around the country. As the war crept toward what was dimly perceived as its inevitable conclusion, she committed to mounting Britten’s opera to mark her company’s return to its theater. A soprano, she cast herself in the role of the exorbitantly charitable schoolmistress Ellen Orford, the first of five Britten roles she would create, the ensuing ones being the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Lady Billows in Albert Herring (1948), Elizabeth I in Gloriana (1953), and Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw (1954). Pears, of course, took on the title part; he would become the standard tenor of Britten’s future operas, but at that point he was not yet famous among British operagoers. In a BBC speech crafted for student listeners in 1946, Britten observed of that inaugural production: “I had a first-rate young producer [Eric Crozier] to work with who criticized every detail of the work relentlessly. I had first-rate young singers to sing the opera, and I attended every single rehearsal and learned from this an enormous amount about what not to write in opera in the future. Some of these things, of course, I was able to alter in rehearsal.”

The premiere took place under trying circumstances, with the opening night following VE Day by less than a month. The Sadler’s Wells chorus and orchestra approached open rebellion over the difficulties of the music (“a piece of cacophony” is how they described it in one of their protests), and they directed particular hostility toward Cross for casting herself in a leading role, and toward Britten, Pears, and Crozier for being conscientious objectors. Quite a few people felt that, after a time of national duress, audiences should have been treated to something frothy, or at least something familiar, rather than a challenging and far-from-optimistic new work. The antagonism reached such a height that, once Peter Grimes had been accomplished, Cross and Pears both disassociated themselves from Sadler’s Wells and joined with Britten, Crozier, and designer John Piper to found the English Opera Group, which would be the face of progressive British Opera in the 1950s.

Even under the circumstances, the premiere of Peter Grimes was a watershed event and, notwithstanding some glitches, the performers pulled it off worthily. Among famous faces spotted in the audience were those of Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Yehudi Menuhin. Leonard Thompson, who played the part of Grimes’s apprentice, later described the audience’s reaction:

When the curtain came down, for I imagine something like—well, it seemed like minutes, but it must have been about thirty seconds—there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. And then it broke out. And it went on and on. I think there were something like fourteen curtain calls. And Ben, of course, came on immaculate, in white tie and tails, looking like a matinee idol. And he just folded in the middle. That’s the only way I can describe it—the deepest bow I’ve ever seen from anybody!

The opera played to full houses for eight further performances. Britten’s old teacher John Ireland attended one and was very pleased. “In some respects he could twist every other composer in this country round his little finger,” he remarked. “It was not pleasant or uplifting—rather Satanic, I thought.” His reaction was not unique. The critic Eric Blom, reviewing for the Birmingham Post, found the opera “gloomy, harrowing, and depressing in the extreme,” and Frank Howes, in The Times, described the orchestral writing as displaying “diabolical cunning.” This did not prevent either from finding a great deal to appreciate, and the overall critical response was very positive indeed. By the end of 1948, the piece was presented in nineteen staged productions and two radio productions, in Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the United States, Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, and Australia. Several of the opera’s orchestral passages, recurrent reminders of the critical role that the sea plays in the lives of the characters of the wretched borough, took on independent life as the Four Sea Interludes, unveiled as a standalone suite only a week after the opera’s premiere and quickly adopted into the symphonic repertory (The San Francisco Symphony will perform the Four Sea Interludes, with video by artist Tal Rosner, on June 28). Ten further operas lay in Britten’s future, but Peter Grimes, his first serious effort in the genre, remains the most securely ensconced in the repertory, the one against which all his future operatic endeavors are measured.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Of obvious authority and historical interest is the classic recording with Britten conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with tenor Peter Pears as Grimes and soprano Claire Watson as Ellen Orford (Decca)  │  Anthony Dean Griffey and Vivian Tierney, with Mark Wigglesworth conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Festival Chorus (Glyndebourne Festival Opera)  │  Philip Langridge and Janice Watson, with Richard Hickox conducting the City of London Sinfonia and London Symphony Chorus (Chandos)  │  Jon Vickers and Helen Harper, with Colin Davis conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Philips)

Britten's Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction, by Heather Wiebe (Cambridge University Press)  │  Reading: Benjamin Britten: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter (Scribners)  │  Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea (Allen Lane)  │  Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, by Neil Powell (Henry Holt)  │  Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes, compiled by Philip Brett (Cambridge Opera Handbooks)  │  The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, edited by Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge)  │  The Music of Benjamin Britten, by Peter Evans (Clarendon Press, Oxford)  │  The Operas of Benjamin Britten, by Claire Seymour (BOYE6)  │  The Operas of Benjamin Britten: An Introduction, by Patricia Howard (Praeger)  │  Music and Sexuality in Britten, edited by Philip Brett (University of California Press)

(June 2014)