4 Sea Interludes

Benjamin Britten

4 Sea Interludes

Op. 33a

About this work

It has been said that with the emergence of Benjamin Britten, England produced its first composer equal in stature to longtime favorite son Henry Purcell. There are indeed strong connections between the two -- indeed, Britten's sympathy for the music of the Baroque master was such that he made a number of arrangements, transcriptions, and realizations of Purcell's works -- though undoubtedly this assertion is based primarily on both composers' complete mastery of the operatic medium. Britten's Peter Grimes (1944-45), based upon a poem of George Crabbe, has taken a place among the most important contributions to opera by a composer in any century. The struggles of its characters -- most prominently, those of the tortured Grimes himself -- are refracted through the metaphor of the sea, which is the lifeblood of the Borough in which the drama is set. Britten's own affinity for the nautical intimately colors the musical and dramatic action throughout. Perhaps Peter Grimes' most elequent expression of these concerns emerges, ironically, in those segments of the opera whose traditional role is to provide "coverage" during scene changes between acts.

The Four Sea Interludes (1944) constitute a suite of entr'actes that, in addition to serving a practical function, infuse the opera with probing psychological cues and suggestions. Composer John Ireland remarked upon the shattering impact of these orchestral episodes: "He really has achieved something remarkable here.... It was not pleasant or uplifting -- rather Satanic, I thought." The Interludes' deliberate function on Britten's part is underscored by the particular care and attention that attended their creation. Apropos of the "Storm" Interlude, which Britten was asked to lengthen for practical reasons, the composer remarked that it was "like someone who came to an architect when he had just finished building a cathedral, gave him a huge slab of stone, and said, 'Here, you must find room for this.'" The Interludes are presented thus: "Dawn," "Sunday Morning," "Moonlight," and "Storm." Each is invested with Britten's most picturesque instrumental sense, from the emergent warmth of the triads in the low brass which bloom beneath intermittent, burbling arpegii in "Dawn" to the boiling, tempestuous morass -- punctuated by Grimes' soaring "What harbor shelters peace?" motive -- of "Storm." Both "Sunday Morning," with the bustle of the Borough's citizens making their way to church for morning services, and the serene respite provided by "Moonlight" display Britten's keen dramatic sense in effectively foreshadowing the action which follows.