Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes

"Peter Grimes" is an opera by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from the "Peter Grimes" section of George Crabbe's poem "The Borough". "The Borough" of the opera is a fictional village which shares some similarities with Crabbe's, and later Britten's, own home Aldeburgh, on England's east coast, around 1830.

It was first performed at Sadler's Wells in London on June 7, 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall and was the first of Britten's operas to be a critical and popular success. It is still widely performed, both in the UK and internationally, and is considered part of the standard repertoire. In addition, the "Four Sea Interludes" were published separately and are frequently performed as an orchestral suite.



Britten and his partner Peter Pears read the poem by Crabbe and were struck by it. They both had a strong hand in drafting the story, and in this process the character of Grimes became far more complex. Rather than being the clear-cut villain he is in Crabbe's version, he became a victim of both cruel fate and society, while retaining darker aspects in his character. [ [,,351168,00.html Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "The lesson of Peter Grimes". "The Guardian", 6 August 2000.] ] It is left to the audience to decide which version is more true, and to see how clear-cut or ambiguous the various characters are. [ [,,699059,00.html Stephen Johnson, Review of "Peter Grimes" in Birmingham. "The Guardian", 3 March 2001.] ]

Pears was certainly the intended Peter Grimes, [ Anthony Tommasini, "The Outsider in Their Midst: Britten’s Tale of the Haunted Misfit," "New York Times," March 1, 2008.] ] and it is likely that Britten wrote the role of Ellen Orford for Joan Cross. The work has been called "a powerful allegory of homosexual oppression", [ [ Philip Brett and Elizabeth Wood, "Lesbian and Gay Music". "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians", Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, editors. London: Macmillan, 2001.] ] and one of "the true operatic masterpieces of the 20th century," but the composer's own contemporary (1948) summation of the work was simpler:

"a subject very close to my heart—the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual." [ [,9171,794230-1,00.html "Opera's New Face", "Time", 16 February 1948.] ]

Though as the writing of the libretto progressed, certain versions showed Grimes' relations with his apprentice to be pederastic, Pears persuaded Slater to cut the questionable stanzas from the final version. [ [,11710,1252747,00.html James Fenton, "How Grimes became grim," "The Guardian", July 3, 2004 ] ] Many scholars, instead of viewing this as a celebration of Grimes' abuse, look at it as Britten's condemnation of the homophobia of his era, and what he understood to be the destructive sociological consequences of it. [Hepburn, A. (2005). Peter grimes and the rumour of homosexuality. University of Toronto Quarterly, 74(2), 648-656.] The opera was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundations and is "dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky", wife of the Russian-born American conductor Sergei Koussevitzky. Its American premiere was given in 1946 at Tanglewood by Koussevitzky's pupil, Leonard Bernstein.

In 1967, the Metropolitan Opera mounted a "landmark" production directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Jon Vickers in the role of Grimes.



Peter Grimes is questioned at an inquest over the death of his apprentice. The townsfolk, all present, make it clear they think Grimes guilty and deserving of punishment. Although the coroner, Mr. Swallow, determines the boy's death to be accidental and clears Grimes without a proper trial, he advises Grimes not to get another apprentice. As the court is cleared, Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress, attempts to comfort Grimes as he rages against what he sees as the Borough community's unwillingness to give him a true second chance.

Act 1

The chorus, who constitute "the Borough", sing of their weary daily round and their relationship with the sea and the seasons. Grimes claims to be in desperate need of help to fish, and his friend, the apothecary Ned Keene, finds him a new apprentice from the workhouse. Nobody will volunteer to fetch the boy, until Ellen (whom Grimes wishes to marry) offers.

When Ellen brings the apprentice to Grimes at the pub that evening, he immediately sets off to his hut, despite the fact that the Borough is weathering a terrible storm.

Act 2

On Sunday morning while most of the Borough is at church, Ellen talks with John, the apprentice. She is horrified when she finds a bruise on his neck. When she confronts Grimes about it, he brusquely claims that it was an accident. Growing agitated at her mounting concern and interference, he strikes her and runs off with the boy. This did not go unseen: first Keene, Auntie, and Bob Boles, then the chorus generally evolve into a mob to investigate Grimes's hut. As the men march off, Ellen, Auntie, and the nieces sing sadly of the relationship of women with men.

At the hut, Grimes accuses the ever silent John of "telling stories" then becomes lost in his memories of the dead apprentice, reliving the boy's death of thirst. When he hears the mob of villagers approaching he quickly comes back to reality and gets ready to set out to sea: he tells John to be careful climbing down to his boat, but to no avail: the boy falls to his death. When the mob reaches the hut Grimes is gone, and they find nothing out of order, so disperse.

Act 3

Nighttime in the Borough. While a dance is going on, Mrs. Sedley tries to convince the authorities that Grimes is a murderer, but to no avail. Ellen and Captain Balstrode confide in each other: Grimes has returned after many days at sea, and Balstrode has discovered a jersey washed ashore: a jersey that Ellen recognizes as one she had knitted for John. Mrs. Sedley overhears this, and with the knowledge that Grimes has returned, she is able to instigate another mob. Singing "Him who despises us we'll destroy", the villagers go off in search of Grimes.

While the chorus can be heard searching for him, Grimes appears onstage, singing a long monologue: John's death has seemingly pushed Grimes, already dangerously unstable, over the edge. Ellen and Balstrode find him, and the old captain encourages Grimes to take his boat out to sea and sink it. Grimes leaves. The next morning, the Borough begins its day anew. There is a report from the coast guard of a ship sinking off the coast. This is dismissed by Auntie as "one of these rumours."

elected recordings



* Stephen Arthur Allen, "He Descended Into Hell: "Peter Grimes", Ellen Orford and Salvaton Denied", "The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten," Ed. Mervyn Cooke, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 81-94."

External links

* [ Peter Grimes: From Planning to Performance]
* [ Further "Peter Grimes" discography]
* [ More information about "Peter Grimes" and other Britten works, including online research resources, on the Britten - Pears Foundation website]
* [ Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes] (BBC synopsis)

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