Britten Completes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peter Grimes, written by composer Benjamin Britten and first produced at the end of World War II, revitalized the British operatic tradition and reawakened international interest in English opera.

Summary of Event

Not counting the operas by the German-born George Frideric Handel in the eighteenth century or the light operas of the Victorian team of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, Peter Grimes (1945) was the first international success by a native English opera composer since Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689). Its composer, Benjamin Britten, was a product of the windswept seacoast of Suffolk and retained a lifelong affection for its people and vulnerable landscape. Although he had left England in May, 1939, dreading the onset of World War II and inspired by W. H. Auden’s promise of greater artistic freedom in the United States, he eventually returned to England and made his native Suffolk his home. He died in 1976 in Aldeburgh, the village he depicted in Peter Grimes. Peter Grimes (Britten and Slater) Opera Music;opera Theater;opera [kw]Britten Completes Peter Grimes (June 7, 1945) [kw]Peter Grimes, Britten Completes (June 7, 1945) Peter Grimes (Britten and Slater) Opera Music;opera Theater;opera [g]Europe;June 7, 1945: Britten Completes Peter Grimes[01510] [g]United Kingdom;June 7, 1945: Britten Completes Peter Grimes[01510] [c]Music;June 7, 1945: Britten Completes Peter Grimes[01510] [c]Theater;June 7, 1945: Britten Completes Peter Grimes[01510] Britten, Benjamin Pears, Peter Slater, Montagu

The story of the opera’s astonishing success begins and ends in Britten’s beloved Aldeburgh. The eighteenth century poet George Crabbe Crabbe, George was born and reared in Aldeburgh. Among the portraits in his The Borough: A Poem in Twenty-four Letters (1810) is “Peter Grimes,” "Peter Grimes" (Crabbe)[Peter Grimes (Crabbe)] which tells the story of a lonely, unpleasant fisherman who had become an object of local antipathy. Grimes hired three apprentices from the workhouse, each of whom died under mysterious circumstances. The subject is scarcely an instantly appealing one; as Patricia Howard has said of the opera, “its miracle is that a character as unattractive, unapproachable, and undeniably unpleasant as Grimes in the end manages to gain our sympathy.”

Britten, who shared with Crabbe a fascination with life along the harsh Suffolk coast, had been impressed in 1934 by his first hearing of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1925), the title character of which is perhaps the ultimate antihero of twentieth century opera. The same year he heard Wozzeck, Britten first came to the general attention of English musical audiences with his “Simple Symphony” (1934). He had already attracted the attention of composer Frank Bridge with his compositional talent, and his promise provided consolation to the English audience that had just lost its three major composers—Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, and Edward Elgar. Depressed by a combination of factors, specifically his distress as a pacifist at the imminent onset of the war and discomfort with his own homosexuality in a country where it was a crime, Britten moved to the United States in May, 1939, with his companion, Peter Pears.

It was the chance reading in 1941, in California, of an appreciative essay on Crabbe by novelist E. M. Forster that caused Britten to decide to return to England. He was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitsky Koussevitsky, Serge to write an opera, and he called upon a colleague from the Left Theatre Left Theatre , Montagu Slater, to reshape Crabbe’s poem into a libretto. The actual composition of the opera took place between January, 1944, and February, 1945, and the first performance was given by the Sadler’s Wells Sadler’s Wells[Sadlers Wells] opera company in London on June 7, 1945, a month after the collapse of Nazi Germany. Peter Pears sang the title role; Joan Cross Cross, Joan (who was also the director of Sadler’s Wells) sang the role of Ellen Orford. The director was Eric Crozier, and the conductor was Reginald Goodall.

Britten wrote Peter Grimes in a relatively conservative style, rejecting Richard Wagner’s goal of “endless melody” in favor of the older operatic practice of providing discrete pieces of music. Britten later explained, “One of my chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom, and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell.” Slater, a prolific poet and scriptwriter, provided Britten with a solid poetic libretto; Britten’s vocal writing was strongly influenced by his deep relationship with the tenor Peter Pears, for whom the title role was tailored.

Britten’s opera centers on its title character, the lonely Suffolk fisherman. Whereas the Peter Grimes of Crabbe’s poem was not accorded any gift for decency or introspection, in Slater’s libretto Crabbe’s grim fisherman became a character too proud and self-willed to come to terms with society. He is a cranky, stubborn nonconformist and a kind of visionary, as his first-act aria, “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades . . . Are Drawing Up,” clearly reveals. He makes the mistake of thinking that he will impress the surly villagers by the acquisition of wealth.

The opera opens, abruptly, with a trial scene, in which Peter is convicted of negligence in the death of his first apprentice. When Ellen Orford, the village widow who genuinely sympathizes with Peter, tries to console him, the music dramatically reveals his inability to communicate: The two sing an unaccompanied duet in different keys. Later, Ellen notices bruises on Peter’s newest apprentice; when she inquires about them, Peter brutally strikes her, painfully confirming his reputation as an abusive figure.

As the villagers storm up the hill to Peter’s cabin to check on his treatment of the boy, Peter inadvertently pushes the boy over a cliff to his death. This last act of unconscious violence also pushes Peter over the brink into madness, allowing Britten to provide his hero with a familiar staple of romantic opera, the mad scene. Peter’s mad recitative set the pattern of lonely reminiscences for Britten’s later deranged or persecuted characters such as Lucretia, Billy Budd, and Aschenbach. In spoken dialogue, Balstrode (Peter’s last village friend) tells him to take his boat out to sea and sink it.

Both the critics and the theatergoing public judged Britten’s work a success. Indeed, the production was so successful that it revived the tradition of English opera. Music critic Henry Davey had once lamented that English opera was “the darkest page in our musical history,” noting sadly that no serious English opera either had consistently held the stage outside England or had earned the admiration of audiences and critics since Dido and Aeneas. The success of Peter Grimes proved that there was an audience for an austere opera on a bleak subject at a moment when England was facing the daunting task of repairing the ravages of the war. American literary critic Edmund Wilson was bowled over by the musical and dramatic power of the opera and recognized that it implicitly addressed the issues of the war, specifically “the blind anguish, the hateful rancors and the will to destruction of these horrible years.”

One unspoken subject of Peter Grimes, as well as many of Britten’s later operas, was homosexuality Homosexuality . Britten himself was reluctant to discuss his own sexuality, and until recently even critical works on Britten’s life and art were reluctant to raise the subject. The obituary for Britten in The New York Times coyly spoke of “the composer and Mr. Pears, both bachelors,” yet within a few years of his death, critics would begin aggressively to reinterpret the composer’s life and art as responses to his own homosexuality.

By these accounts, Peter Grimes’s behavior in the opera is seen variously as that of an alienated homosexual or a potentially or actively abusive male, but Britten himself never spoke of the opera in these terms. Such interpretations are far from Crabbe’s original conception of Peter as a man “untouched by pity, unstung by remorse, and uncorrected by shame.” The character of Peter Grimes is more likely now to be perceived by audiences as lonely, alienated, guilty, and—while abusive—increasingly sympathetic.

Critics have admired the opera for the strength of its choral writing, and it has been compared with other operas in which the community plays an integral role, such as Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1874) and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935). The opera is filled with great scenes for the chorus, depicting villagers in a variety of social institutions—at Peter’s trial, mending fishing nets, in church, and in the village pub. An even stronger case might be made for the orchestra as the true hero. Britten’s orchestration skillfully depicts the roaring of the wind, the surging of the waves, and the menace of an ocean storm. The orchestra is called on to provide rousing music for a vivid round, “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing;” music for a barn dance; and liturgical music for the church scene. Four of the opera’s six orchestral interludes have achieved independent life in the concert hall as the Four Sea Interludes. Four Sea Interludes (Britten)

Stylistically, the opera is notable for its energy and variety. Peter’s songs favor the unusual interval of the ninth, a leap suggestive of the character’s idealism. The orchestra initially provides the melody for Peter’s aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades. . . Are Drawing Up,” while the singer holds a single note (a favorite device of Giacomo Puccini). The melodies are simple but have piquant twists for a modern listener, such as an unexpected sharp or flat. Britten has the energy and vitality of Giuseppe Verdi and Leoš Janácek’s instinct for rendering village activities. Like Dmitri Shostakovich, Britten had the courage to resist serialism and other avant-garde systems, with the result that his music is now admired for its integrity and accessibility to audiences.


The success of Peter Grimes, in addition to reviving English opera in general, had the more immediate effect of revitalizing the Sadler’s Wells opera company, which had been nearly starved of resources because of wartime austerity. It also helped reinvigorate England’s cultural life in the years between the war’s end and the Festival of Britain in 1951. It marked the first operatic collaboration of the creative pair of Britten and his longtime companion, tenor Peter Pears; their mutual success, as composer and performer, would extend nearly thirty years.

Unpromising though it must have seemed in 1945, the story of Peter Grimes set the course of Britten’s operatic career, with its main figure a relative innocent who is sacrificed to the will of an inflexible community. This theme would enter the stories of Albert Herring, Billy Budd, and the friends of the prophet Daniel in The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966). The same theme could even be said to describe two other sensitive, tormented figures: Captain Vere in Billy Budd (1951) and Aschenbach in Death in Venice (1973).

The major and unexpected success of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells led, within three years, to productions throughout Europe and, in America, at the Tanglewood Music Festival. On February 12, 1948, the opera was performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In 1967, the Metropolitan Opera staged a new production with Jon Vickers in the title role, Heather Harper as Ellen, and Colin Davis conducting. Vickers’s stern dignity and heavy Wagnerian voice offered a sharp contrast to Pears’s distinctive and far lighter tenor voice; since then, Vickers’s dark conception of the role has come to be thought of as definitive.

After Peter Grimes, Britten proceeded quickly to new operatic projects, both chamber operas on an intimate scale, such as The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and Albert Herring (1947), and large-scale operas requiring many soloists and a large chorus, such as Billy Budd and Gloriana (1953), the latter written to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Little Sweep (1949) was written as children’s entertainment. Britten wrote a trio of “church operas” for semiprofessional performance, Noye’s Fludde (1957), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), and The Prodigal Son (1968); Curlew River (1964) is related to this group. The Turn of the Screw (1954) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) are based on formidable literary sources. Britten’s last opera was Death in Venice (1973), based on Thomas Mann’s novella; it marked his final operatic collaboration with Peter Pears, for whom so much of his vocal music had been written.

Although the power and invention of Peter Grimes are not in dispute, Britten’s later operas show increasing sophistication and a greater mastery of technique than did the 1945 work. Some critics argue for Billy Budd as his operatic masterpiece, while others regard Death in Venice as his greatest work. If Peter Grimes marked the first peak in Britten’s reputation as a composer, however, his War Requiem War Requiem (Britten) (1962) clearly marked the second. Both works shared the composer’s mastery of technique and indignation at human cruelty to other humans. Like his great predecessor Edward Elgar or his Russian friend and contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich, Britten in his final years produced music that was increasingly austere and melancholy, as well as detached and oblique. Like Elgar and Shostakovich, he shared a deeply humanistic compassion for the victims of violence and prejudice. Peter Grimes (Britten and Slater) Opera Music;opera Theater;opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett, Philip, ed. Benjamin Britten:Peter Grimes.” Cambridge Opera Handbooks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Useful compendium of essays, including E. M. Forster’s positive assessment of Crabbe’s poetry that brought the story of Peter Grimes to Britten’s attention in 1941. Eager to place the opera in the context of Britten’s homosexuality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Felsenfeld, Daniel. Britten and Barber: Their Lives and Their Music. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Amadeus Press, 2005. Study of Britten alongside a similar study of composer Samuel Barber, comparing their careers and their works. Includes a full-length compact disc, as well as bibliographic references and a discography of each composer’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grout, Donald Jay. A Short History of Opera. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947. A standard older history of opera, still impressive for its range and conciseness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Patricia. The Operas of Benjamin Britten: An Introduction. New York: Praeger, 1969. Sensitive but dated study of the operas up to The Burning Fiery Furnace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Michael. Britten. London: Dent, 1981. A good chronological study of the composer’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kildea, Paul Francis. Selling Britten: Music and the Marketplace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A study of Benjamin Britten’s operatic scores that focuses on their mass-cultural appeal and their distribution as commodities beyond and apart from their staging. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidgall, Gary. Literature as Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Influential study of the interrelationships of operas and their literary sources; features a sensitive chapter on Death in Venice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Eric Walter. Benjamin Britten: His Life and Operas. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. A thorough study, with detailed chapters on each of the operas.

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