Peter Grimes

An Opera by Benjamin Britten

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.

Benjamin Britten

About

Ben Heppner as Grimes, Royal Opera 2011
Ben Heppner as Grimes © Clive Barda/ROH

Peter Grimes is a big opera with a very tight focus. There are huge choral scenes and a large cast of supporting players but the work holds fast to Grimes himself. Grimes is the ultimate outsider, one whom Britten associated with strongly. He’s far from a hero, not even close, but he’s no pantomime villain either. “Now the Great Bear”, his startling Act II aria, reveals the wounded man beneath the menacing facade. This ambiguity runs throughout the piece, Grimes’s nastiness set against the overwhelming mob-like behaviour of the townsfolk.

Another major element is that of nature, the sea ever present in the drama and no more so than in the incredible interludes (music that is frequently heard in concert halls as the “4 Sea Interludes”). The town is dependent on the sea, fishing is how they make their living, but it is a dangerous bargain: they live by the sea and frequently die by it too, as we see with Grimes’s successive apprentices.

Ellen Orford provides a counterpoint to the harshness of the environment and town, a schoolmistress spinster who cares for Grimes. He too wishes to marry her, if he can make money, but it is largely a social contract not a loving one (though as with everything in this opera, there is plenty of ambiguity).

Peter Grimes is a tragedy from start to finish but it's also a masterpiece of musical theatre. The sheer force of the music lifting the narrative to realms rarely reached in 20th Century opera.

The opening of Act II - Sunday Morning

Characters

NameVocal TypeDescription
AuntieContraltoThe manager of The Boar pub.
BalstrodeBaritoneA retired merchant skipper who stands apart from the community in attempting to understand and help Grimes.
Bob BolesTenorA methodist fisherman with a taste for alcohol and women. One of the least savoury characters in the town.
Ellen OrfordSopranoA middle aged spinster with a soft spot for Grimes. Also something of a pariah in the community.
HobsonBassThe town carrier. Refuses to go get John until Ellen convinces him otherwise.
JohnSilentGrimes's new apprentice. Inevitably doomed.
Mrs. (Nabob) SedleyMezzo-sopranoA sad, lonely old woman who gossips endlessly in a rather unpleasant fashion. Also addicted to Laudanum (a mild opium).
Ned KeeneBaritoneThe town apothecary (basically a medical quack). One of the more sympathetic townsfolk, Ned finds a new assistant for Grimes when no one else will help.
Nieces 1 and 2SopranoThe nieces of Auntie. The best looking girls in town and as a result a major attraction of The Boar for the male population.
Peter GrimesTenorThe title role. A mean, violent fisherman ostracised from the community. The anti-hero of the piece.
Rev. Horace AdamsTenorThe town rector. Mostly harmless.
SwallowBassA lawyer and town magistrate, and as a result one of the most powerful people in the town. He's also a bit of a bully. His major appearances bookend the opera.
  • Auntie

    Contralto

    The manager of The Boar pub.

  • Balstrode

    Baritone

    A retired merchant skipper who stands apart from the community in attempting to understand and help Grimes.

  • Bob Boles

    Tenor

    A methodist fisherman with a taste for alcohol and women. One of the least savoury characters in the town.

  • Ellen Orford

    Soprano

    A middle aged spinster with a soft spot for Grimes. Also something of a pariah in the community.

  • Hobson

    Bass

    The town carrier. Refuses to go get John until Ellen convinces him otherwise.

  • John

    Silent

    Grimes's new apprentice. Inevitably doomed.

  • Mrs. (Nabob) Sedley

    Mezzo-soprano

    A sad, lonely old woman who gossips endlessly in a rather unpleasant fashion. Also addicted to Laudanum (a mild opium).

  • Ned Keene

    Baritone

    The town apothecary (basically a medical quack). One of the more sympathetic townsfolk, Ned finds a new assistant for Grimes when no one else will help.

  • Nieces 1 and 2

    Soprano

    The nieces of Auntie. The best looking girls in town and as a result a major attraction of The Boar for the male population.

  • Peter Grimes

    Tenor

    The title role. A mean, violent fisherman ostracised from the community. The anti-hero of the piece.

  • Rev. Horace Adams

    Tenor

    The town rector. Mostly harmless.

  • Swallow

    Bass

    A lawyer and town magistrate, and as a result one of the most powerful people in the town. He's also a bit of a bully. His major appearances bookend the opera.

Synopsis

Prologue and Act I - Running Time: 55 mins

Prologue

Peter Grimes’s apprentice has died at sea. At the town court the coroner questions him about his actions. His answers are far from satisfactory, but the court reaches the conclusion that the death was accidental. The crowd of townspeople disagree, braying for his punishment as Grimes rails against them. Only Ellen Orford comforts him against the force of the crowd

Grimes on trial, Zurich Opera
Grimes on trial, Zurich Opera

Act I

Scene 1

The townsfolk sing of their daily grind with and against the sea. We are outside the town pub, operated by Auntie and her two nieces, where various local figures congregate. Grimes enters needing a new apprentice. Ned Keene, the apothecary, has found him one from the workhouse but Grimes needs someone to collect the boy for him.

Grimes enters the boar, Royal Opera
Grimes arrives at the pub, Royal Opera

None are willing. Indeed they are actively resistant to Grimes having another boy. Eventually Ellen enters and offers to get the boy. She defends Grimes, “Let her among you without fault, Cast the first stone” (though it’s difficult to argue Grimes hasn’t thrown one helluva lot of stones himself). She leaves to get the boy.

A storm approaches. Most head inside, many to the pub, to batten down the hatches for the evening. Captain Balstrode stays with Grimes, warning him of the risk of yet more tragedy for a new apprentice. Grimes retorts that he needs a boy to earn money, earning the respect of the Borough, and opening the door for his marriage to Ellen. Balstrode thinks Grimes foolish, telling him to marry Ellen at once: but it is all for naught.

Scene 2

Later that night the storm is raging and we are inside the Boar where much of the community is holed up. Balstrode attempts to calm the place, particularly the drunk Bob Boles who is attempting to have his way with one of Auntie’s nieces. Keene comes dashing in from the cold with the news that part of the cliff has fallen into the sea near Grimes’s hut.

Grimes enters in a blaze.

Chorus:
Talk of the devil and there he is
A devil he is, and a devil he is.
Grimes is waiting his apprentice.

Grimes responds to the hostility by retreating into himself and singing the soaring reverie “Now the great Bear and Pleiades”...

Stuart Skelton sings "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades"

Boles attacks Grimes but Balstrode holds him down. To restore the peace Balstrode suggests a song, the lilting round “Old Joe has gone fishing”.

Old Joe Has Gone Fishing

Ellen enters with the boy. The pair are freezing but Grimes immediately drags the boy away. The crowd are incensed as the curtain falls.

Act II - Running Time: 50 mins

Scene 1

Grimes is judged, San Diego Opera
Grimes is judged, San Diego Opera

We are back outside the pub. It’s a Sunday morning a few weeks after the last scene. Most of the town are at church but Ellen sits with John, Grimes’s apprentice. She longs to hear from him about his new life but John remains steadfastly silent. That longing turns to shock when she finds a nasty bruise on his neck.

Grimes enters and Ellen confronts him, but he dismisses it as an accident. In anger Grimes strikes Ellen and takes off with the boy to go fishing. The town is beginning to leave church and Grimes’s actions are overseen by some of the community. They are a gossipy judgemental lot but for all that they are loath to act themselves: “Grimes is at his exercise”.

Grimes is at his exercise

Their collective anger grows however and eventually they make off like a pitchfork wielding mob, led by Swallow, to Grimes’s hut. Ellen, Auntie and her nieces remain singing despondently of how women have to deal with men.

A mob assembles, Met Opera
A mob assembles, Metropolitan Opera

Scene 2

Grimes has returned to his home with John and is fuming. He drives John to prepare for the fishing trip but loses himself in memories of his last apprentice and his slow realisation that his dreams of happiness are never to be.

The approaching mob snaps Grimes back to reality but he is now paranoid and even more angry than before. They quickly ready for sea and Grimes orders John to carefully climb down the cliff to the boat. Alas, the boy slips and falls, crashing to his death.

Grimes follows anyway and when the mob arrives they find the hut empty. With nothing to be doing the mob disperses into the night.

Grimes prepares his apprentice for sea, Opera Australia
Grimes (Stuart Skelton) prepares his apprentice for sea, Opera Australia

Act III - Running Time: 40 mins

Scene 1

Ellen Orford, Grimes on the Beach
Ellen Orford (Giselle Allen), Aldeburgh Festival

A few nights later, a dance is in full swing at the Moot Hall. Mrs Sedley aggressively tries to convince Ned Keene that Grimes has killed his new apprentice. She hides as Ellen and Balstrode discuss Grimes’s return from the sea. He had been away several nights (since we last saw him in fact) and disturbingly Balstrode has found a boy’s sweater washed up on the beach. Ellen realizes it is the sweater that she herself knitted for John...

Mrs Sedley, overhearing all this, convinces Swallow of Grimes’s guilt and with Hobson another bloodthirsty mob is amassed to hunt down Grimes.

Scene 2

Grimes has gone quite mad, wandering the beach, mentally reliving his past (this is something of a Bel Canto style mad scene). Ellen and Balstrode find him, he barely notices their approach, and Balstrode tells him to take his boat out and sink it. Ellen says nothing as he does so, departing to the sea for one last time.

The next morning, the Borough reawakens. The coast guard reports a ship sinking off the coast. It is quickly put aside by Auntie as “one of these rumours”.

Grimes final departure, Grimes on the Beach
Grimes (Alan Oke) final departure, Aldeburgh Festival

Major Arias

NameSung byExcerpt
Embroidery in childhoodEllen Orford
Glitter of wavesEllen Orford
Now the great bearPeter Grimes
  • Embroidery in childhood

    Sung by: Ellen Orford

  • Glitter of waves

    Sung by: Ellen Orford

  • Now the great bear

    Sung by: Peter Grimes

Where in the World

Peter Grimes takes place in a supposedly generalized “The Borough, a small fishing town on the East Coast [of England]”, but in reality it is set specifically in Aldeburgh, a real town that Britten grew up near and later lived by. Aldeburgh is located in Suffolk on a gravelly patch of land between the River Alde and the North Sea. It’s a much less bleak place than Crabbe and Britten paint it, though you wouldn’t want to be caught outside by the sea on a cold, wet night.

The Beach at Aldeburgh
The Beach at Aldeburgh

History

Britten came across George Crabbe’s work in 1941 whilst he was still living in America. He and Pears were staying in Escondido, a city in California, when they happened upon an article about Crabbe in the “Listener” by E. M. Forster. They seized upon Crabbe’s works, reading them extensively as they made their way back across the States, but at this stage Britten wasn’t seriously considering taking on a piece on the scale of Peter Grimes.

It might never have been were it not for a $1000 dollar commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. Serge Koussevitzky was a Russian born conductor with a passion for new music. Britten and Pears were in Boston to hear him conduct Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” at the start of 1942 when he offered the commission (the piece would eventually be dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky, Serge’s wife).

On the long boat journey back to England, which took more than 4 weeks, Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols amongst other pieces whilst Pears began working on a possible scenario for Grimes. Their first choice for a librettist Christopher Isherwood wasn’t interested (and in any case Isherwood was based in the US by this time so it wasn’t hugely practical with Britten and Pears’s return to the UK). Montagu Slater was settled upon, a poet/playwright/film maker who Britten had worked with in the past.

Grimes progressed as Pears returned to singing by joining the Sadler’s Wells Opera in early 1943. The Sadler’s Wells Opera Company had survived the war by becoming an itinerant company touring the UK led by the soprano Joan Cross. With the war coming to an end, the company was to return to their home at Sadler’s Wells in Rosebery Avenue and Cross set upon the idea of reopening with the world premiere of Peter Grimes.

It wasn’t plain sailing by any means! Covent Garden wanted the opera too and many in the Sadler’s Well’s Company disliked the music, the plot and the fact that after years being unable to perform the big grand operas they were going to be denied the possibility of doing so for yet longer.

It all came together in the end with Pears as Grimes and Cross singing Ellen Orford. Peter Grimes premiered at Sadler’s Wells on the 7th of June 1945 to wild acclaim. It was a night that would change British Opera forever and launch Britten to a glittering international career.

Britten and Pears preparing the BBC film of Peter Grimes
John Ishaw, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears preparing for the BBC film of Peter Grimes in 1969 © BBC

The Borough

George Crabbe
George Crabbe

“The Borough” by George Crabbe is an epic set of 24 poems (called letters) published in 1810. Britten and Pears thought letter XXII, Peter Grimes, might make for a strong opera plot. He was of course right, but the Grimes of the opera is very different from the Grimes of the poem.

Crabbe’s Grimes is essentially evil, a sadist who mistreats his boy apprentices for financial reward and acts without remorse. He comes to a sticky end in a madhouse, a far different conclusion from the almost redemptive finale of Britten’s opera.

In any case you can decide for yourself what kind of a man Crabbe’s Grimes is as the full text of letter XXII is below. It’s only short, at 375 lines, but provides an interesting angle on the raw material that Peter Grimes sprung forth from.

  • The Borough. Letter XXII : Peter Grimes

    Old Peter Grimes made fishing his employ,
    His wife he cabin'd with him and his boy,
    And seem'd that life laborious to enjoy:
    To town came quiet Peter with his fish,
    And had of all a civil word and wish.
    He left his trade upon the sabbath-day,
    And took young Peter in his hand to pray:
    But soon the stubborn boy from care broke loose,
    At first refused, then added his abuse:
    His father's love he scorn'd, his power defied,
    But being drunk, wept sorely when he died.

    Yes! then he wept, and to his mind there came
    Much of his conduct, and he felt the shame,--
    How he had oft the good old man reviled,
    And never paid the duty of a child;
    How, when the father in his Bible read,
    He in contempt and anger left the shed:
    "It is the word of life," the parent cried;
    --"This is the life itself," the boy replied;
    And while old Peter in amazement stood,
    Gave the hot spirit to his boiling blood:--
    How he, with oath and furious speech, began
    To prove his freedom and assert the man;
    And when the parent check'd his impious rage,
    How he had cursed the tyranny of age,--
    Nay, once had dealt the sacrilegious blow
    On his bare head, and laid his parent low;
    The father groan'd--"If thou art old," said he,
    "And hast a son--thou wilt remember me:
    Thy mother left me in a happy time,
    Thou kill'dst not her--Heav'n spares the double-crime."

    On an inn-settle, in his maudlin grief,
    This he revolved, and drank for his relief.

    Now lived the youth in freedom, but debarr'd
    From constant pleasure, and he thought it hard;
    Hard that he could not every wish obey,
    But must awhile relinquish ale and play;
    Hard! that he could not to his cards attend,
    But must acquire the money he would spend.

    With greedy eye he look'd on all he saw,
    He knew not justice, and he laugh'd at law;
    On all he mark'd he stretch'd his ready hand;
    He fish'd by water, and he filch'd by land:
    Oft in the night has Peter dropp'd his oar,
    Fled from his boat and sought for prey on shore;
    Oft up the hedge-row glided, on his back
    Bearing the orchard's produce in a sack,
    Or farm-yard load, tugg'd fiercely from the stack;
    And as these wrongs to greater numbers rose,
    The more he look'd on all men as his foes.

    He built a mud-wall'd hovel, where he kept
    His various wealth, and there he oft-times slept;
    But no success could please his cruel soul,
    He wish'd for one to trouble and control;
    He wanted some obedient boy to stand
    And bear the blow of his outrageous hand;
    And hoped to find in some propitious hour
    A feeling creature subject to his power.

    Peter had heard there were in London then,--
    Still have they being!--workhouse clearing men,
    Who, undisturb'd by feelings just or kind,
    Would parish-boys to needy tradesmen bind:
    They in their want a trifling sum would take,
    And toiling slaves of piteous orphans make.

    Such Peter sought, and when a lad was found,
    The sum was dealt him, and the slave was bound.
    Some few in town observed in Peter's trap
    A boy, with jacket blue and woollen cap;
    But none inquired how Peter used the rope,
    Or what the bruise, that made the stripling stoop;
    None could the ridges on his back behold,
    None sought his shiv'ring in the winter's cold;
    None put the question,--"Peter, dost thou give
    The boy his food?--What, man! the lad must live:
    Consider, Peter, let the child have bread,
    He'll serve thee better if he's stroked and fed."
    None reason'd thus--and some, on hearing cries,
    Said calmly, "Grimes is at his exercise."

    Pinn'd, beaten, cold, pinch'd, threaten'd, and abused--
    His efforts punish'd and his food refused,--
    Awake tormented,--soon aroused from sleep,--
    Struck if he wept, and yet compell'd to weep,
    The trembling boy dropp'd down and strove to pray,
    Received a blow, and trembling turn'd away,
    Or sobb'd and hid his piteous face;--while he,
    The savage master, grinn'd in horrid glee:
    He'd now the power he ever loved to show,
    A feeling being subject to his blow.

    Thus lived the lad, in hunger, peril, pain,
    His tears despised, his supplications vain:
    Compell'd by fear to lie, by need to steal,
    His bed uneasy and unbless'd his meal,
    For three sad years the boy his tortures bore,
    And then his pains and trials were no more.

    "How died he, Peter?" when the people said,
    He growl'd--"I found him lifeless in his bed;"
    Then tried for softer tone, and sigh'd, "Poor Sam is dead."
    Yet murmurs were there, and some questions ask'd,--
    How he was fed, how punish'd, and how task'd?
    Much they suspected, but they little proved,
    And Peter pass'd untroubled and unmoved.

    Another boy with equal ease was found,
    The money granted, and the victim bound;
    And what his fate?--One night it chanced he fell
    From the boat's mast and perish'd in her well.
    Where fish were living kept, and where the boy
    (So reason'd men) could not himself destroy:--

    "Yes! so it was," said Peter, "in his play,
    (For he was idle both by night and day,)
    He climb'd the main-mast and then fell below;"--
    Then show'd his corpse and pointed to the blow:
    "What said the jury?"--they were long in doubt,
    But sturdy Peter faced the matter out:
    So they dismiss'd him, saying at the time,
    "Keep fast your hatchway when you've boys who climb."
    This hit the conscience, and he colour'd more
    Than for the closest questions put before.

    Thus all his fears the verdict set aside,
    And at the slave-shop Peter still applied.

    Then came a boy, of manners soft and mild,--
    Our seamen's wives with grief beheld the child;
    All thought (the poor themselves) that he was one
    Of gentle blood, some noble sinner's son,
    Who had, belike, deceived some humble maid,
    Whom he had first seduced and then betray'd:
    However this, he seem'd a gracious lad,
    In grief submissive and with patience sad.

    Passive he labour'd, till his slender frame
    Bent with his loads, and he at length was lame:
    Strange that a frame so weak could bear so long
    The grossest insult and the foulest wrong;
    But there were causes--in the town they gave
    Fire, food, and comfort, to the gentle slave;
    And though stern Peter, with a cruel hand,
    And knotted rope, enforced the rude command,
    Yet he considered what he'd lately felt,
    And his vile blows with selfish pity dealt.

    One day such draughts the cruel fisher made,
    He could not vend them in his borough-trade,
    But sail'd for London-mart: the boy was ill,
    But ever humbled to his master's will;
    And on the river, where they smoothly sail'd,
    He strove with terror and awhile prevail'd;
    But new to danger on the angry sea,
    He clung affrighten'd to his master's knee:
    The boat grew leaky and the wind was strong,
    Rough was the passage and the time was long;
    His liquor fail'd, and Peter's wrath arose,--
    No more is known--the rest we must suppose,
    Or learn of Peter;--Peter says, he "spied
    The stripling's danger and for harbour tried;
    Meantime the fish, and then th' apprentice died."

    The pitying women raised a clamour round,
    And weeping said, "Thou hast thy 'prentice drown'd."

    Now the stern man was summon'd to the hall,
    To tell his tale before the burghers all:
    He gave th' account; profess'd the lad he loved,
    And kept his brazen features all unmoved.

    The mayor himself with tone severe replied,
    "Henceforth with thee shall never boy abide;
    Hire thee a freeman, whom thou durst not beat,
    But who, in thy despite, will sleep and eat:
    Free thou art now!--again shouldst thou appear,
    Thou'lt find thy sentence, like thy soul, severe."

    Alas! for Peter not a helping hand,
    So was he hated, could he now command;
    Alone he row'd his boat, alone he cast
    His nets beside, or made his anchor fast;
    To hold a rope or hear a curse was none,--
    He toil'd and rail'd; he groan'd and swore alone.

    Thus by himself compell'd to live each day,
    To wait for certain hours the tide's delay;
    At the same times the same dull views to see,
    The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree;
    The water only, when the tides were high,
    When low, the mud half-cover'd and half-dry;
    The sun-burnt tar that blisters on the planks,
    And bank-side stakes in their uneven ranks;
    Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
    As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.

    When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
    Through the tall bounding mud-banks made their way,
    Which on each side rose swelling, and below
    The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
    There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
    There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
    In its hot slimy channel slowly glide;
    Where the small eels that left the deeper way
    For the warm shore, within the shallows play;
    Where gaping mussels, left upon the mud,
    Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood;--
    Here dull and hopeless he'd lie down and trace
    How sidelong crabs had scrawl'd their crooked race;
    Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
    Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye;
    What time the sea-birds to the marsh would come,
    And the loud bittern, from the bulrush home,
    Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom:
    He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce,
    And loved to stop beside the opening sluice;
    Where the small stream, confined in narrow bound,
    Ran with a dull, unvaried, sadd'ning sound;
    Where all, presented to the eye or ear,
    Oppress'd the soul with misery, grief, and fear.

    Besides these objects, there were places three,
    Which Peter seem'd with certain dread to see;
    When he drew near them he would turn from each,
    And loudly whistle till he pass'd the reach.

    A change of scene to him brought no relief;
    In town, 'twas plain, men took him for a thief:
    The sailors' wives would stop him in the street,
    And say, "Now, Peter, thou'st no boy to beat":
    Infants at play, when they perceived him, ran,
    Warning each other--"That's the wicked man":
    He growl'd an oath, and in an angry tone
    Cursed the whole place and wish'd to be alone.

    Alone he was, the same dull scenes in view,
    And still more gloomy in his sight they grew:
    Though man he hated, yet employ'd alone
    At bootless labour, he would swear and groan,
    Cursing the shoals that glided by the spot,
    And gulls that caught them when his arts could not.

    Cold nervous tremblings shook his sturdy frame,
    And strange disease--he couldn't say the name;
    Wild were his dreams, and oft he rose in fright,
    Waked by his view of horrors in the night,--
    Horrors that would the sternest minds amaze,
    Horrors that demons might be proud to raise:
    And though he felt forsaken, grieved at heart,
    To think he lived from all mankind apart;
    Yet, if a man approach'd, in terrors he would start.

    A winter pass'd since Peter saw the town,
    And summer-lodgers were again come down;
    These, idly curious, with their glasses spied
    The ships in bay as anchor'd for the tide,--
    The river's craft,--the bustle of the quay,--
    And sea-port views, which landmen love to see.

    One, up the river, had a man and boat
    Seen day by day, now anchor'd, now afloat;
    Fisher he seemed, yet used no net nor hook;
    Of sea-fowl swimming by no heed he took,
    But on the gliding waves still fix'd his lazy look:
    At certain stations he would view the stream,
    As if he stood bewilder'd in a dream,
    Or that some power had chain'd him for a time,
    To feel a curse or meditate on crime.

    This known, some curious, some in pity went,
    And others question'd--"Wretch, dost thou repent?"
    He heard, he trembled, and in fear resign'd
    His boat: new terror fill'd his restless mind;
    Furious he grew, and up the country ran,
    And there they seized him--a distemper'd man:--
    Him we received, and to a parish-bed,
    Follow'd and curs'd, the groaning man was led.

    Here when they saw him, whom they used to shun,
    A lost, lone man, so harass'd and undone;
    Our gentle females, ever prompt to feel,
    Perceived compassion on their anger steal;
    His crimes they could not from their memories blot,
    But they were grieved, and trembled at his lot.

    A priest too came, to whom his words are told
    And all the signs they shudder'd to behold.

    "Look! look!" they cried; "his limbs with horror shake.
    And as he grinds his teeth, what noise they make!
    How glare his angry eyes, and yet he's not awake:
    See! what cold drops upon his forehead stand,
    And how he clenches that broad bony hand."

    The priest attending, found he spoke at times
    As one alluding to his fears and crimes:
    "It was the fall," he mutter'd, "I can show
    The manner how--I never struck a blow":--
    And then aloud--"Unhand me, free my chain;
    An oath, he fell--it struck him to the brain:--
    Why ask my father?--that old man will swear
    Against my life; besides, he wasn't there:--
    What, all agreed?--Am I to die to-day?--
    My Lord, in mercy, give me time to pray."

    Then, as they watch'd him, calmer he became,
    And grew so weak he couldn't move his frame,
    But murmuring spake,--while they could see and hear
    The start of terror and the groan of fear;
    See the large dew-beads on his forehead rise,
    And the cold death-drop glaze his sunken eyes;
    Nor yet he died, but with unwonted force
    Seem'd with some fancied being to discourse:
    He knew not us, or with accustom'd art
    He hid the knowledge, yet exposed his heart;
    'Twas part confession, and the rest defence,
    A madman's tale, with gleams of waking sense.

    "I'll tell you all," he said, "the very day
    When the old man first placed them in my way:
    My father's spirit--he who always tried
    To give me trouble, when he lived and died--
    When he was gone, he could not be content
    To see my days in painful labour spent,
    But would appoint his meetings, and he made
    Me watch at these, and so neglect my trade.

    "'Twas one hot noon, all silent, still, serene,
    No living being had I lately seen;
    I paddled up and down and dipp'd my net,
    But (such his pleasure) I could nothing get,--
    A father's pleasure, when his toil was done,
    To plague and torture thus an only son!
    And so I sat and look'd upon the stream,
    How it ran on, and felt as in a dream:
    But dream it was not: no!--I fix'd my eyes
    On the mid stream and saw the spirits rise,
    I saw my father on the water stand,
    And hold a thin pale boy in either hand;
    And there they glided ghastly on the top
    Of the salt flood, and never touch'd a drop:
    I would have struck them, but they knew th' intent,
    And smiled upon the oar, and down they went.

    "Now, from that day, whenever I began
    To dip my net, there stood the hard old man--
    He and those boys: I humbled me and pray'd
    They would be gone;--they heeded not, but stay'd;
    Nor could I turn, nor would the boat go by,
    But gazing on the spirits, there was I:
    They bade me leap to death, but I was loth to die:
    And every day, as sure as day arose,
    Would these three spirits meet me ere the close;
    To hear and mark them daily was my doom,
    And 'Come' they said, with weak, sad voices, 'come'.
    To row away with all my strength I tried,
    But there were they, hard by me in the tide,
    The three unbodied forms--and 'Come', still 'come', they cried.

    "Fathers should pity--but this old man shook
    His hoary locks, and froze me by a look:
    Thrice, when I struck them, through the water came
    A hollow groan, that weaken'd all my frame:
    'Father!' said I, 'have mercy':--He replied,
    I know not what--the angry spirit lied,--
    'Didst thou not draw thy knife?' said he:--'Twas true,
    But I had pity and my arm withdrew:
    He cried for mercy which I kindly gave,
    But he has no compassion in his grave.

    "There were three places, where they ever rose,--
    The whole long river has not such as those,--
    Places accursed, where, if a man remain,
    He'll see the things which strike him to the brain;
    And there they made me on my paddle lean,
    And look at them for hours;--accursed scene!
    When they would glide to that smooth eddy-space,
    Then bid me leap and join them in the place;
    And at my groans each little villain sprite
    Enjoy'd my pains and vanish'd in delight.

    "In one fierce summer-day, when my poor brain
    Was burning hot, and cruel was my pain,
    Then came this father-foe, and there he stood
    With his two boys again upon the flood;
    There was more mischief in their eyes, more glee
    In their pale faces when they glared at me:
    Still did they force me on the oar to rest,
    And when they saw me fainting and oppress'd,
    He, with his hand, the old man, scoop'd the flood,
    And there came flame about him mix'd with blood;
    He bade me stoop and look upon the place,
    Then flung the hot-red liquor in my face;
    Burning it blazed, and then I roar'd for pain,
    I thought the demons would have turn'd my brain.

    "Still there they stood, and forced me to behold
    A place of horrors--they cannot be told--
    Where the flood open'd, there I heard the shriek
    Of tortured guilt--no earthly tongue can speak:
    'All days alike! for ever!' did they say,
    'And unremitted torments every day'--
    Yes, so they said":--But here he ceased and gazed
    On all around, affrighten'd and amazed;
    And still he tried to speak, and look'd in dread
    Of frighten'd females gathering round his bed;
    Then dropp'd exhausted, and appear'd at rest,
    Till the strong foe the vital powers possess'd:
    Then with an inward, broken voice he cried,
    "Again they come," and mutter'd as he died.

Fun Facts

Site-specific!

For Britten’s Centenary in 2013 the Aldeburgh Festival, the festival Britten himself founded, staged a production of Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh. Site-specific opera is always to be cherished but it was a rare and wonderful thing for Britten’s sea inspired music to be accompanied by the sounds of the sea!

Grimes on the Beach
Grimes on the Beach, © Robert Workman

Librettists...

The libretto for Peter Grimes was fashioned out of George Crabbe’s “The Borough” by Montagu Slater. Slater was no great poet, he was better known for left wing political journalism, but in some regards this worked well for Britten and Pears. Though Slater was generally resistant to having his work altered, his background meant that he was no poetic prophet coming from the high mountains to deliver this perfect work: he was prepared to make musically needed changes as the opera developed. The creative team tampered endlessly with the text, it went through many revisions, becoming something quite different from Crabbe’s original poem. However, Slater’s true feelings about all this tampering are perhaps revealed in his decision, much to Britten’s irritation, to publish his original, unaltered libretto in a collection of his works.

War

Britten empathised with Grimes’s isolation for several reasons but one of the most prominent was perhaps Britten’s status as a conscientious objector during WWII. He spent the first part of the war in the USA away from the conflict and then upon his return to Britain applied for official conscientious objector status. Though Britten did not receive nearly as much abuse as his friends W. H. Auden and Charles Isherwood (who came in for considerable criticism in the press), he was still in a relatively exposed position. Early in the war the BBC had gone as far as to place a ban on the employment of conscientious objectors, luckily abandoned by the time of Britten and Pears’s return, and the Royal Philharmonic Society refused to premiere Britten’s Violin Concerto citing his lack of popularity.

It was against this background that Grimes was written and premiered, a tough time for the tiny minority who didn’t overtly support the war effort. Britten would return more overtly to pacifist themes later in his life culminating in his great War Requiem for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral.

Popular?

Peter Grimes is by almost every measure one of the most popular 20th Century works in the operatic repertory. It was a hit from the start, quickly performed across the globe with 16 productions in 7 different languages within 3 years of its premiere. Grimes has maintained a fairly consistent hold ever since, ranking 88th on the most performed operas between 2008 and 2013, making it one of the top five most performed post WWII works (Britten’s later chamber opera The Turn of the Screw one of the few works even more popular).

Adults and their children

The ENO's Death in Venice
Death in Venice, © ENO/Hugo Glendinning

Peter Grimes is a work fraught with potential interpretations but one interesting and often overlooked element concerns the apprentice John. He is silent, unable to communicate with the adults around him. This total failure of communication between adults and child is a theme that runs through Britten’s works and frequently leads to tragedy: Tadzio is silent in Death in Venice, a boy worlds apart from the elderly protagonist, whilst The Turn of the Screw quite literally places the desperately possessive adult ghosts in a different world from the children.

Jon Vickers

Peter Pears originated the role of Grimes but the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers would soon become one of the world’s leading performers of it. Britten was remarkably unkeen on Vickers performance however for a variety of reasons. In particular, as recounted in Jeannie Williams’s, “Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life” because Vickers took to altering the text: amongst other changes “Out of the hurly-burly” to “How should I know?” because he thought the slang too hard to follow. Vickers also saw Grimes not as a repressed homosexual but as a more universal figure (which is a completely fair approach) but in doing so tended to coarsen Grimes away from Britten’s more visionary figure. Whatever Britten’s opinion, Vickers would have an enormous impact on how the role came to be sung, his heavier, less sympathetic portrayal now more common that the more poetic Pears.

In Brief

  • Name Peter Grimes
  • Composer Benjamin Britten
  • Librettist Montagu Slater
  • Language English
  • Date of premiere June 7, 1945
  • Number of Acts 3
  • Music length 2 hours, 25 minutes

Quiz

Recordings

Though popular for a 20th Century opera, the number of recordings made of Peter Grimes is considerably less than for the 19th Century Romantic operas. However, the great benefit of Grimes's recency is that the original creatives were part of some of the original recordings, giving us amazing visual and aural documentation of what the composer's intentions really were!

BBC film 1969

The BBC film made in 1969. A touch fusty in its staging and the audio is remastered from mono, but conducted by Britten and starring Pears, this is as close to Britten's vision as we are ever likely to get.

Vickers at ROH

As different from Pears as you could imagine, Jon Vickers gave legendary performances as Grimes. Here he performs in the 1975 ROH production conducted by a young Colin Davis.


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