Benjamin Britten
Born November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, England, United Kingdom
Died December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, England, United Kingdom
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings
Performance time
18 minutes
Composed 1945
Last Performed by the TSO
April 17, 2016

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is one of the most successful operas in English and one of the most successful by a British composer. For a challenger in the latter category you would have to go back to the 17th century and Henry Purcell, whose opera The Fairy Queen still appears on stage now four centuries later. An essentially British opera, Peter Grimes is based on a poem by 19th century British poet George Crabbe and takes place in a small British fishing village on the Suffolk coast. The opera in essence has two characters: Peter Grimes, a fisherman of gruff, overly self-reliant character who struggles to make a living and is subject to misfortunes such as the death of his boy apprentice. Against him are the people of the small town in need of someone to look down upon to maintain their self-esteem, provide fodder for juicy gossip in their dull lives, and prop up their bourgeois British sensibility. The sea is almost a third character, it is both Grimes’ vehicle for success or failure and in the end his doom.

In the opera, the Sea Interludes provide pacing for the drama and make time for the sets to be changed on stage. That is their function, but they are also masterpieces of musical tone painting, incisively conveying the setting and mood of the story telling. The opera opens with “Dawn.” The village awakens at sunrise and the various characters appear in the sharp chill air while the sea moans awesomely and ominously. The second interlude, “Sunday Morning,” portends some hope for Peter’s difficult life as he spends time on the shore with Ellen, his potential mate, although the music at times belies the current moment of happiness. “Moonlight” provides the calm before the “Storm.” Peter’s fate is more or less sealed, and the storm crisis reveals the worst and best of the village characters. The four interludes do not close in on Peter’s final fate, something to be learned in the opera itself, a must-see for lovers of the arts of music, opera, or drama.

David Gilbert