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FastNotes

  • Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s first opera, is about a misanthropic loner who is hounded to self-destruction by his fellow townspeople after two mysterious, but accidental, deaths. The opera’s premiere was immediately recognized as a landmark for the composer.
  • The Passacaglia is a telescoped version of two sections from Act II. A stark seven-note figure in the bass is repeated 39 times under a series of variations on a haunting theme introduced by the viola.
  • In the opera, the Passacaglia propels the action into the scene of the second death. The concert version skips the scene and, in effect, jumps right to the end of Act II, where viola and celesta depict Grimes’ now empty hut.

Composed: 1945
Length: c. 16 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (= piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd = E-flat), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, bells, bass drum, cymbals, gong, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine), harp, and strings
First LA Phil performance: November 24, 1949, Benjamin Britten conducting

Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s first opera, is about a fisherman in Aldeburgh on England’s eastern coast, a misanthropic loner who is hounded to self-destruction by the townspeople after the mysterious, but accidental, deaths of two of his apprentices. The opera’s premiere as the first postwar production of the Sadler’s Wells Opera was immediately recognized as a landmark for both Britten and English opera.

In the opera, the Sea Interludes and Passacaglia are scene changes. Britten was extraordinarily adept at making a virtue of the necessity of getting smoothly from one set to another, and his interludes not only take the listener from one physical location to another (giving the impression at times of going out to sea and back), but also go inside the characters’ minds, which throughout the opera are full of turmoil and doubt. Britten, who had lived in Aldeburgh in his youth, was so successful in painting the sea and coast in music that he found himself having to emphasize that the opera was about the people, not the sea.

There is not a bar in the interludes, no matter how beautiful, that is free of foreboding. The five orchestral pieces are integrated into the opera’s action, leading into the next scene without pause. In making concert pieces out of them, Britten put them in a different sequence and changed some endings to make them self-contained.

The Passacaglia is a telescoped version of two sections from Act II. A stark seven-note figure in the bass is repeated 39 times under a series of variations on a haunting theme introduced by the viola. The beginnings and ends of the variations don’t synchronize with the repetitions of the ground bass; indeed, they go their tumultuous way almost in competition with it. In the opera, the Passacaglia propels the action into the scene in which the second apprentice falls to his death. The concert version skips the scene and, in effect, jumps right to the end of Act II, where viola and celesta depict Grimes’ now empty hut.  — Howard Posner