Op. 33 (1945)

Opera in 3 acts and a prologue

Libretto by Montagu Slater derived from a poem by George Crabbe

Time and Place: The Borough, a fishing village, East Anglian coast, around 1830
Duration: 2 and a half hours
First performance: 7 June 1945, Sadler’s Wells, London

Cast

Peter Grimes (a fisherman): Tenor
Boy (John) (his apprentice): Silent role
Ellen Orford (a widow, schoolmistress of the Borough): Soprano
Captain Balstrode (retired merchant skipper): Baritone
Auntie (landlady of ‘The Boar’): Alto
Two nieces (main attractions of ‘The Boar’): Sopranos
Swallow (a lawyer): Bass
Bob Boles (fisherman and methodist): Tenor
Mrs (Nabob) Sedley (a rentier widow of an East India Company’s factor): Mezzo-soprano
Rev Horace Adams (the rector): Tenor
Ned Keene (apothecary and quack): Baritone
Hobson (carrier): Bass
Dr Crabbe: Silent role
Chorus of townspeople and fisherfolk: SATB

What’s it about?

At an inquest into the death of William Spode, apprentice to the fisherman Peter Grimes, coroner Swallow calls various witnesses, including Grimes himself, but the verdict of death in accidental circumstances does not satisfy most of the villagers, who regard Grimes as a violent criminal. Their attitude becomes one of open antagonism when his only friend, the schoolmistress Ellen Orford, collects another apprentice from the workhouse for him. In the pub that evening Grimes claims his new boy, to a reception from his fellow townsfolk that is openly and almost universally hostile. Ellen befriends the boy, John, but before long is horrified to find evidence on his body of mistreatment. Challenging Peter with this she is struck in her turn, and while the pub landlady Auntie and her nieces find some sympathy for her, the men of the village march in deputation to Grimes’ hut to tackle him. It is found empty – a moment earlier, the new apprentice had fallen to this death over the cliff edge and Peter had climbed down after him. Grimes now disappears, and the local gossip Mrs Sedley stirs the village worthies once more into action, this time with the entire Borough (minus Ellen and the retired sea captain Balstrode) forming a manhunt. While they chase after him, Grimes, completely unhinged by his experiences, turns up on the shore, to be sent by Balstrode to sink himself and his boat at sea. As the village returns to life the following morning, a report of a ship going down is dismissed as a rumour.

Britten outside The Old Mill at Snape, where he composed Peter Grimes.

Scoring

2 flutes (doubling piccolo)
2 oboes (II doubling cor anglais)
2 clarinets in B flat & A (II doubling clarinet in E flat)
2 bassoons
Contrabassoon

4 horns
3 trumpets (I, II in C, III in D)
3 trombones
Tuba

Timp
2 percussion: side trum, tenor drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbal, gong, whip, xylophone, rattle
Harp
Celesta

Strings

Off stage
Organ, bells, tuba

Off stage band (members of the orchestra)
2 clarinets in B flat, percussion (cymbal, side drum, bass drum), solo violin, solo double pass, piano (ad lib.).

Publisher

Boosey & Hawkes
Buy, hire or view score

What's it About?

At an inquest into the death of William Spode, apprentice to the fisherman Peter Grimes, coroner Swallow calls various witnesses, including Grimes himself, but the verdict of death in accidental circumstances does not satisfy most of the villagers, who regard Grimes as a violent criminal. Their attitude becomes one of open antagonism when his only friend, the schoolmistress Ellen Orford, collects another apprentice from the workhouse for him. In the pub that evening Grimes claims his new boy, to a reception from his fellow townsfolk that is openly and almost universally hostile. Ellen befriends the boy, John, but before long is horrified to find evidence on his body of mistreatment. Challenging Peter with this she is struck in her turn, and while the pub landlady Auntie and her nieces find some sympathy for her, the men of the village march in deputation to Grimes’ hut to tackle him. It is found empty – a moment earlier, the new apprentice had fallen to this death over the cliff edge and Peter had climbed down after him. Grimes now disappears, and the local gossip Mrs Sedley stirs the village worthies once more into action, this time with the entire Borough (minus Ellen and the retired sea captain Balstrode) forming a manhunt. While they chase after him, Grimes, completely unhinged by his experiences, turns up on the shore, to be sent by Balstrode to sink himself and his boat at sea. As the village returns to life the following morning, a report of a ship going down is dismissed as a rumour.

Did You Know?

  1. The opera is based on part of a poem by Suffolk poet George Crabbe (he had been a curate in Aldeburgh), entitled The Borough. Britten and Pears came across a volume of Crabbe’s works in a bookshop in Los Angeles in 1941 during their stay in the USA, and Britten’s nostalgia for East Anglia was one of the reasons he and Pears returned to the UK in 1942.
  2. Britten composed the bulk of the opera while living at The Old Mill in Snape between 1943-1945. He carried the manuscript around with him in a briefcase, nervous of leaving it unattended in case of bombs.
  3. The opera was a huge critical and popular success after its premiere at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945.
  4. It had been commissioned by the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Serge Koussevitsky, whom Britten had got to know in America. Koussevitsky graciously allowed a non-American premiere – the American premiere of the work took place at Tanglewood in August 1946, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
  5. In 2013, Peter Grimes truly came home: an outdoor production, Grimes on the Beach, took place on Aldeburgh beach during the 2013 Festival.

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