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Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Benjamin Britten
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: John Adams, conductor/Leila Josefowicz, violin May 20 - 22, 2010
© Thomas May
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a 
BENJAMIN BRITTEN

Sea and landscapes are threaded through the major works on this second program chosen by John Adams. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was haunted throughout his life by the formidable beauty of the British coast along his native Suffolk, which is the setting for his first large-scale opera, Peter Grimes. Its unexpectedly triumphant premiere in June 1945 was a watershed moment for the composer and for postwar opera.

Britten's source for the story of the fisherman Grimes, who is accused of murdering his young apprentices by the townsfolk, was a section from a larger narrative poem of 1810 by George Crabbe (The Borough). Crabbe portrayed Grimes as a sadistic misanthrope, "untouched by pity." The opera, however, reimagines the ruthless bully as a movingly ambiguous figure—a "tortured idealist," in the composer's phrase. His remarkably probing score depicts the conflicted relation between this outsider and the close-knit collective of the townspeople. Grimes's outsize ambitions fatefully combine with the hostility he arouses from the community to result in his self-destruction.

The story of "the individual against the crowd," Britten remarked, also entailed "ironic overtones for our own situation." He was alluding not only to the taboo subject of his relationship with his lifelong lover Peter Pears (who, along with leftist writer Montagu Slater, the librettist, collaborated to formulate the opera's scenario); Britten also had in mind the scorn they both faced as pacifists and conscientious objectors who had spent the early war years in the United States. In fact, it was while he was living in this country that Britten alighted on the idea for Peter Grimes. Ironically, the crucial role local color plays in the opera, with its setting in the very sort of sea town he had known as a boy, triggered Britten's desire to reconnect with his roots and end his self-imposed exile.

The opera's rich and intricate score actually includes six orchestral interludes. Britten extracted four of these as a stand-alone concert piece (he did likewise with another of the interludes, the act-three Passacaglia). In these interludes, the all-important setting of the sea comes into focus and provides its own chorus-like commentary through Britten's evocative orchestral writing. The first ("Dawn") forms the transition between the trial scene of the Prologue (where Grimes is exonerated) and the first act. Against the thin glint of sunlight breaking through on high, menacing brass harmonies swell from below. This music returns to end the opera, nature's eternal patterns indifferent to the human suffering that has been depicted. The second interlude ("Sunday Morning") prefaces act two with extroverted, brightly rhythmic tolling as the community gathers for worship. "Moonlight," the third interlude, is the prelude to the final act, a counterpart to "Dawn." A silvery rain of woodwind and percussion intermittently splashes, while yearning harmonies slowly throb with increasingly troubled intensity. Britten isn't interested in picturesque "nature painting." Much as John Adams conjures the stark and stormy desert of his Doctor Atomic, the seascapes here function as a kind of objective correlative for human emotions. This is especially apparent in the fourth interlude ("Storm"), which doubles as a scene change in the opera's first act. Britten modulates between outer landscape and inner psyche. The music's thrashing violence mimics Grimes's turmoil; temporary refuge from the storm opens in a wide melodic arc taken from the aria Grimes sings as he tries to envision a way out ("What harbor shelters peace?") The hope it expresses is battered by the tempest's savage final surge.