Benjamin Britten set Peter Grimes, his first major opera, in a small fishing village that could easily be the seaside town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, which he helped to make famous. Britten was born some 20 miles up the coast from Aldeburgh, and he eventually established his own music festival there. The sea is a powerful presence in Peter Grimes — it dominates Britten’s characters, just as it has controlled life in Aldeburgh (of the five streets that once ran parallel to the coastline, two are now submerged). As the final curtain falls, even the individual tragedy of Peter Grimes is washed away by the great, ceaseless tide.
In the orchestral interludes which divide the scenes of Peter Grimes, Britten has painted the sea in all its “terrific splendour” — the phrase of George Crabbe, the Aldeburgh poet whose The Borough was the inspiration for Britten’s opera. The interludes depict more than scenery; in them, we sense the plight of an outsider in an unsympathetic society — “he lived from all mankind apart,” Crabbe writes of Grimes — and the painful alienation that lies at the heart of all Britten’s work.
Here’s the synopsis of the opera Britten provided for the opening-night audience: In the life of his Suffolk fishing town, Peter Grimes fits uneasily. He lives alone — visionary, ambitious, impetuous, poaching and fishing without caution or care for consequences, and with only one friend in town — the widowed schoolmistress, Ellen Orford. He is determined to make enough money to ask her to marry him, though too proud to ask her till he has lived down his unpopularity and remedied his poverty.
He fishes with the aid of an apprentice, bought, according to the custom of the time, from the workhouse. In the prologue, he is chief witness in an inquest on his first apprentice, and the verdict is accidental death. In Act 1, he is boycotted but obtains a second apprentice, whom Ellen goes to fetch for him and promises to care for. In Act 2 she discovers he has been using the boy cruelly. Led by the rector, the men of the borough go to investigate his hut. Frightened, Peter takes the boy down the scar of a recent landslide under which he moors his boat, and the boy falls down the cliff. When it is discovered that the boy is dead, a hue-and-cry from the borough sets out to find Peter, who commits suicide by scuttling his boat just out of sight of the town. This is in the small hours of the morning. The borough wakes up and goes on with its life as usual.
Britten’s interludes are distinct from the rest of the opera (they are to be played while the curtain is down) yet indispensable to its meaning and impact — in that sense, they’re like the prose poems with which Virginia Woolf introduces each section of her novel The Waves. After the triumphant premiere of Peter Grimes on June 7, 1945, Britten realized that the interludes could stand alone as evocative sea pictures, and he selected four to be played as a suite. The extensive passacaglia that links the two scenes of Act 2 is often added at the end as a powerful postlude.
The first interlude, Dawn, links the prologue and the first scene of Act 1, which opens on a street by the sea. Britten’s music is both beautiful and terrifying — it suggests the powerful paintings by J.M.W. Turner, the great English artist of the 19th century who bought several houses so that he could watch the sun rise over the sea from different vantage points. The interlude opens with a clear, high theme — like the fine line dividing the water and the sky at dawn. Clarinet and harp arpeggios suggest the spray of the waves, while quiet chords in the brass and low strings hint of a terrible undercurrent, even in the warming glow of dawn. This music returns at the opera’s end, to start another day, oblivious to Grimes’ suicide.
Aldeburgh is in Constable country, and in the second interlude, Sunday Morning, it’s easy to picture a lone church steeple against the wide sky. This is the music that opens Act 2: villagers hurry through town on their way to church; the sea sparkles in the sun. Four horns in pairs sound the ringing of the bells (they’re later joined by actual bells). Soon the streets are empty — a cloud seems to have covered the sun.
The final act of the opera opens in the calm of night, with the moon shining over still waters. Moonlight, the third interlude, depicts not only the sea’s repose (and, in the harp and flutes, the glimmer of the moon on the waves), but also its underlying menace. The fourth interlude, Storm, links the two scenes of Act 1. Alone, watching fierce clouds approach over the sea, Peter sings:
What harbor shelters peace,
Away from tidal waves, away from storms?
What harbor can embrace
Terrors and tragedies?
With her there’ll be no quarrels,
With her the mood will stay.
Her breast is harbor, too,
Where night is turned to day.
The storm breaks and the music rises to a terrible climax. It finally subsides, in slow phrases of eerie calm, but Grimes’ equilibrium is upset, and he soon comes to realize that his dreams are beyond his reach. The concluding passacaglia weaves layer upon layer of ever-changing music over a simple theme, introduced by pizzicato low strings and then lingering at the end, after a shattering outburst, suddenly eerily quiet and alone.