Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes with Video by Tal Rosner

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a

Edward Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, in 1913, and died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. On June 12 of that year he had been created Lord Britten of Aldeburgh in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, the first musician to be elevated to the peerage. Britten began to dream of a Peter Grimes opera in 1941, and the project became a reality when Serge Koussevitzky offered a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. Montagu Slater wrote the libretto in 1942-43, and Britten began the music in January 1944, completing the score in February 1945. With Reginald Goodall conducting and Peter Pears in the title role, Peter Grimes had its first performance on June 7, 1945, at the post-war reopening of the Sadler's Wells Theater in London. The first American performance was given at Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts, on August 6, 1946, Leonard Bernstein conducting. On March 1 of that year, Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony had already introduced the Sea Interludes. The San Francisco Symphony first played this music in March 1981, with Edo de Waart conducting. The most recent performances of the Sea Interludes were given in and last performed it in November 2005, with Oliver Knussen conducting. The score calls for two flutes and two piccolos, two oboes, two clarinets, and E-flat clarinet, two bassoons, and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, gong, tambourine, xylophone, tubular bells, celesta, harp, and strings. Performance time: about sixteen minutes.

Someone at a tennis party asked the fourteen-year-old E.B. Britten what he planned to be when he grew up. "A composer," he said. "Yes, but what else?" came the reply. When that conversation took place, Elgar was still alive, his reputation sinking fast, and he was in despair at the prospect for an English composer to be taken seriously as a professional. More than anyone, Britten was to change that. The turning point was the triumph of Peter Grimes on June 7, 1945.

The idea for the work had come to Britten in America, where he had gone, a rather discontented young man, in June 1939. Things had been beginning to go well for Britten. He was getting performances and was increasingly in demand as a composer for documentary films. The important publishing firm of Boosey & Hawkes took him on. He was played abroad. Still, British criticism was hostile to anyone outside the English pastoral tradition, anyone so shamelessly brilliant. Britten's loyalty to left-wing and pacifist causes and his ties to such artists as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood also made him a suspect figure. Stanley Baldwin's and then Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Hitler drove him to despair. When Auden and Isherwood moved to the United States in January 1939, Britten made arrangements to follow suit. His companion on the journey—for life, as it turned out—was Peter Pears, whom he had met three years before.

Auden and Isherwood, each in his own way, settled in America with Americans. Britten's American experience made him realize how deeply rooted he was in England. While visiting the duo-pianists Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson at Escondido, California, in the summer of 1941, he saw in the BBC magazine The Listener an article by E.M. Forster about the East Anglian poet George Crabbe. "To think of Crabbe is to think of England," Forster began. That sentence changed Britten's life. It brought to the surface his feeling that he must return to England, and by April 17, 1942, he and Pears were home. Talks that January with Serge Koussevitzky had assured the financial feasibility of undertaking a three-act opera. When Britten was ready to begin, he turned to Crabbe's The Borough for what would become Peter Grimes.

George Crabbe, who died in 1832, subscribed to eighteenth-century values, not least to that period's sense of order, and he wrote in heroic couplets. But his unflinching, unsentimental look in The Borough at the dreary life of an impoverished fishing village was part of a new sensibility. Crabbe’s Peter Grimes, whose name in real life was Tom Brown, was a thoroughly bad lot who beat his aged father, gambled, and "drank for his relief . . . He fish'd by water, and he filch'd by land." There was at the time a kind of slave trade in orphans at London workhouses, and through these "workhouse-clearing men . . . undisturb'd by feelings just or kind" he obtained a series of apprentices, all of whom died through Grimes's combined negligence and brutality. After the mayor forbade Grimes to take another apprentice and the borough ostracized him, he began to suffer from hallucinations and died, insane.

Britten's librettist, Montagu Slater, made it clear that the Peter Grimes of the opera was not the one in Crabbe's poem; he was a character of Slater's invention, and to some extent of Britten's. Slater does not diminish Grimes's brutality to his boys, but he turns him into a complex character, proud to a fault, tormented, poetic, aware. Against the temper of the Borough he sets the lone figure of Ellen Orford. Though doomed to failure, she tries to help Peter, who even dreams of marriage with her. Peter has become a character who profoundly engages our sympathies and whose disintegration can tear us apart.

This is the synopsis given the audience at the premiere: "In the life of his Suffolk fishing-town Peter Grimes fits uneasily. He lives alone, visionary, ambitious, impetuous, poaching and fishing without caution or care for consequences, and with only one friend in town—the widowed schoolmistress, Ellen Orford. He is determined to make enough money to ask her to marry him, though too proud to ask her till he has lived down his unpopularity and remedied his poverty.

"He fishes with the aid of an apprentice, bought, according to the custom of the time from the workhouse. In the Prologue he is chief witness in an inquest on his first apprentice and the verdict is accidental death. In Act I he is boycotted but obtains a second apprentice, whom Ellen goes to fetch for him and promises to care for. In Act II she discovers he has been using the boy cruelly. Led by the Rector, the men of the borough go to investigate his hut. Frightened, Peter takes the boy down the scar of a recent landslide under which he moors his boat, and the boy falls down the cliff. When it is discovered that the boy is dead a hue-and-cry from the borough sets out to find Peter, who commits suicide by scuttling his boat just out of sight of the town. This is in the small hours of the morning. The borough wakes up and goes on with its life as usual."

The Sea Interludes are the music that introduces, separates, and connects the seven scenes of the Prologue and the three acts. In concert they do not occur in the same order as in the opera.

The first Sea Interlude—Dawn—links the Prologue and the first of the scenes on the Borough High Street and beach. There are three musical ideas: a lonely and extended line for soft, high violins and flutes; a fluttering arpeggio for clarinets, harp, and violas; and a sequence of quietly weighty chords for brass with bassoons, drums, and low strings.

Sunday Morning is the Prelude to Act II. We hear church bells; indeed, most of Ellen's scene with the apprentice and later with Peter takes place against the background of the service we hear dimly as it comes through the windows of the church.

Moonlight is the Prelude to Act III and to a scene that starts out as a cheery barn dance.

The Storm interlude comes in the middle of Act I. Peter, alone, has been “gazing intently into the sea and approaching storm." He sings:

What harbor shelters peace,

Away from tidal waves, away from storms?

What harbor can embrace

Terrors and tragedies?

With her there'll be no quarrels,

With her the mood will stay.

Her breast is harbor too,

Where night is turned to day.

The storm breaks. The slow phrases that freeze its course are the recollections of Peter's vision.

Michael Steinberg


Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.


Video and animation by Tal Rosner

The process of creating a visual interpretation of Britten's Four Sea Interludes began in 2009, when I was commissioned to make an animation for a single interlude in a workshop with the New World Symphony in Miami. Since then, I've often contemplated extending the segment into the entire orchestral composition, illustrating its richness and contrasting landscapes.

When approaching the piece as a whole, I decided to break it down into four video/animation scenarios that correspond to the four movements, and that, in turn, are inspired by one of the four commissioning cities: Miami (Dawn), Philadelphia (Sunday Morning), San Francisco (Moonlight) and Los Angeles (Storm). As the visual building blocks for each section are derived exclusively from footage and photographs of that city, every host orchestra has its own unique representation in the resulting digital tapestry.

To introduce a thematic thread connecting the four metropolises, I chose to focus on overpasses and bridges, which are in many ways interludes themselves—connecting between point A and point B, and not necessarily a destination in their own right. I explored these structures from all angles: the views they revealed from over and under them, the designs themselves, and also the sensations they evoked—the sense of awe at their monolithic proportions.

The urban layouts of the cities presented are also all defined by sea or in rivers. By revealing or obstructing the views, the visuals not only reflect rhythm changes and orchestration within the music—but also delve into the psychological minutiae of the interludes in relation to the opera’s narrative. The graphic compositions peel away the layers of urban vernacular to explore the inner fabric of the cities; panoramic vistas and minute architectural details come together in choreographic unison.

In the year of Britten's centenary I feel a great honor to be given the opportunity to animate these intriguing and evocative pieces. 

I would like to thank Michael Tilson Thomas for dreaming this project and making it possible; Carol McMichael Reese, Wim de Wit and Fred Bernstein for their help in the early stages of research; and Sophie Clements, a dear friend and collaborator.

—Tal Rosner, London 2013

The video by Tal Rosner was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, New World Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, and the Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

More About the Music

Recordings:  Benjamin Britten and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra (London/Decca)  |  André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)  |  Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction, by Heather Wiebe (Cambridge University Press)  |  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)


28 June 2014