Friday, January 11, 2013

Britten's "Peter Grimes"

Late last summer, I was driving a certain distance when the Met Opera channel on my Sirius XM radio played Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. It’s pleasant when I’m driving to listen to an opera in its entirety, something I seldom take the time to do at home.

I knew of Britten before I found the LP set of Peter Grimes in a favorite used record store in Carbondale, IL thirty years ago. During that same time period I collected most of the opera sets conducted by Britten and produced by Decca/London. Peter Grimes, which premiered in 1945, was a landmark opera both in English music and the music world. Its bleak story---a rough local fisherman, despised by the good Christian people of the village but who wants success and respect, is exonerated from causing the death of one of his apprentices but unintentionally causes the death of another, leading to his madness and suicide as the townsfolk search for him---is set against the musically depicted natural elements, a storm, a sunny day, and the sea. The “Four Interludes” from the opera are often recorded separately as orchestral portrayals of sea and weather.

I’ve listened to the opera several times over the years, but somehow this time the elemental qualities of the music stood out, perhaps because I was driving through scenery (though not seaside scenery) that I love. The sea seems to be “going on” throughout the story, as of course it would be in a coastal village.

Musicologist Christopher Palmer comments that Grimes’ journey---born by the sea and then claimed by it---was probably reflective of Britten’s own unconscious feelings, since Britten himself resolved to live beside the sea, and began and ended his career with operas (Grimes and Death in Venice) in which disappearing into the sea was a kind of redemption.(1) The sea figures strongly in Peter Grimes, Death in Venice and Billy Budd, as a “symbol of the nothingness which is everythingness... that simultaneous longing for the sense’ fulfillment and their extinction,” comments Palmer, drawing parallels between Britten and Wagner in this regard.(2).

“[B]eing submerged and swept away by a torrent of water is an image also of rebirth; if Peter is to be redeemed he has to return... to the unconscious waters, whence---well, who knows? Man is nothing, nature alone endures; perhaps in the last analysis, the truest lesson Grimes has to teach us is that of the vanity of all human endeavor. Grimes is a quintessentially Hardyesque work. As Peter Garvie puts it, ‘The passing bell is tugged by human hands to signify the end of human time for each of us; but the bell-buoy sounds forever to the movement of the tides.’”(3)

Inside the book from which I read these essays, I've tucked a postcard from Sir Peter Pears, Britten's partner who created so many of Britten's operatic roles, including Grimes, Aschenbach in Death in Venice, and Vere in Billy Budd. I had written Pears an appreciative letter in 1985, to which he responded with a sweet thank-you note, presumably from the seaside house he and Britten (who died in 1976) had shared. Pears commented that his health was failing (he died a year later) and had had to cancel a planned visit to the U.S.


1.  Christopher Palmer, Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” Palmer, ed., The Britten Companion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 118-119.

2.  Palmer, “Towards a Genealogy of Death in Venice,” ibid., 255.

3.  Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” ibid., 119.

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