Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten

Peter Grimes

Op. 33

About this work

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Benjamin Britten's works for the stage (17 in all) single-handedly restored the vitality and relevance of English-language opera, which had been virtually dormant since the death of Henry Purcell, and integrated themselves into the performing repertory to an extent that has eluded every composer since Puccini and Strauss. Peter Grimes was Britten's first full-scale operatic composition and the decisive salvo in his quest to become a force in the genre. Its immediate success gained him international stature, and its score proved a seminal foundation upon which he would build and expand for the rest of his career.

The inspiration for Peter Grimes came to Britten and his collaborator/partner, Peter Pears, while they were living in the United States. A reading of George Crabbe's epic poem The Borough filled Britten with a longing for his home country -- specifically the coastal town of Aldeburgh, which was central to Crabbe's writing -- and ignited his imagination. The means to realize the project came from Serge Koussevitzky, who offered Britten a generous commission for the work. Britten and Pears set to work on a tentative outline immediately, and by the time of their return to England (March 1942) they had loosely adapted a story line from Crabbe's original, which the playwright and journalist Montagu Slater then used as the basis for his libretto.

In adapting Crabbe's story, Britten and Pears created the quintessential antihero -- a man whose complete, and perhaps deserved, alienation from society is the very source of his sympathy. While the Grimes of Crabbe's poem is a relatively one-dimensional villain, sadistic and cruel, the central character of Britten's opera is conflicted and driven, no more villain than victim. Standing apart from society so completely, Grimes actually gives "character" to the Borough in which he lives; the unity of hostile sentiment among its citizens forges them into a larger dramatic presence. The town itself seems to be opposed to Grimes and to be the driving force behind his tragic downfall.

Elements of Peter Grimes are reminiscent of nineteenth century French grand opera and the tendency of the genre to put individuals against larger, often unstoppable forces. Grimes' inexorable march toward tragedy seems to nullify any faith in free will or in his power to swim against the tide of events. Public scorn, and the desire to succeed in spite of rejection -- even the harsh storm that besets the town -- all seem predestined to bring about his torment, and in fighting against these things his faults become all the more apparent. He is a man overwhelmed by circumstance and by his own inner conflicts. He is a failure.

Britten's score, on the other hand, is a resounding success. It is rich with modal inflections, rhythmic intricacies, and cleverly layered musical ideas, all of which are bound by a taut and economical structure. The four orchestral interludes are especially effective, both in their musical invention and their ability to advance the drama without the need for complementary stage action; Britten excerpted them into a concert suite in the years following the work's premiere.

Although the tonal language of Peter Grimes is conservative by Britten's later standards, he clearly drew upon his score as a template for other works. In Grimes can be heard glimmers of The Rape of Lucretia, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Billy Budd, the Canticles, and the choral cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, and at all times it exhibits his innate blending of the lyrical and the driven, the dissonant and the peaceful, the vital and the surreal -- the very qualities that so well suited him to opera.