Benjamin Britten (born 22/11/1913) was one of England’s most accomplished and cherished composers. Taking in a vast array of styles and genres from liturgical and vocal pieces to opera and music for film, Britten’s output was peerless in twentieth century neoclassicism and became the foundation of what we now know as extended tonality.
Britten’s early exposure to music can be credited to his mother, Edith, who was a talented musician herself and surrounded herself and her family with musical acquaintances, tutored him in piano and encouraged him to explore composition from an early age along with the viola. Progressing through private tuition with the cellist Audrey Alston and the composer Frank Bridge, Britten eventually found himself studying composition at the Royal College of Music after winning a scholarship. He excelled at the RCM, winning numerous prizes for composition.
After a period of working for the BBC and composing for films, live theatre and radio, Britten spent three years in America where he was further exposed to the work of Aaron Copeland and the Canadian Colin McPhee. He also read “The Borough”, a collection of poems by George Crabbe and became convinced that he should write an opera based on the character Peter Grimes from Crabbe’s collection. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky proposed a $1000.00 commission for Britten to write the piece and Britten started work on it soon after his return to England in 1942 along with the librettist Montague Slater.
“Peter Grimes” was premiered on the seventh of June 1945 at the newly reopened Sadler’s Wells theatre with Britten’s long-time collaborator Peter Pears taking the role of Grimes as tenor. It was well received by both public and critics, very soon going on to be produced in both Massachusetts and New York, and on the beach at Aldeburgh, Britten’s adopted home town.
The opera tells the story of Peter Grimes, a hapless fisherman with a propensity for violence who falls foul of the accidental deaths of two of his apprentices. The village turns on him and seeing no future for himself after the series of unfortunate events allows himself to be convinced to end his own life by drowning.
Aside from Britten’s sterling work throughout, be sure to take note of Slater’s libretto and how Grimes is portrayed as both aggressor and victim throughout the opera, also of the four orchestral pieces composed as preludes to the opera and to the three acts which are frequently performed on their own as a suite, known as the Four Sea Interludes.