Friday, December 24, 2010

Peter Grimes

The British poet, clergyman and naturalist George Crabbe was born on this day in 1754. One of Crabbe’s most famous poems is The Borough, a series of 24 “letters” which portray various inhabitants of an English village. Benjamin Britten took Letter XXII as the basis for his Peter Grimes opera; go here for Jon Vickers in Britten’s climactic scene, Grimes mad, guilty and about to sail away to his death. The lines below, from Crabbe’s poem:

…Fisher he seem’d, 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….

It was through Forster that Britten developed an interest in the work of Crabbe, a fellow East Anglian, a curate as well as a writer born in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh on the east coast of England in 1754. Peter Pears purchased a volume of Crabbe’s poetry shortly after Britten read Forster’s article and, as he was later to inscribe in the flyleaf of the book, it was from his and Britten’s reading of the long poem ‘The Borough’ that “we started work on the plans for making an opera out of Peter Grimes”. The "borough" of the opera is a fictional village which shares some similarities with Crabbe's, and later Britten's, own home Aldeburgh, on England's east coast, around 1830. Britten’s first full length, and possibly best known, opera originated in part from the composer’s reading of the article ‘George Crabbe: the Poet and the Man’ by E.M. Forster, which appeared in The Listener in May 1941. It was first performed at Sadler's Wells in London on 7 June 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall and is still widely performed, both in the UK and internationally, and is considered part of the standard repertoire. In addition, the Four Sea Interludes were published separately (as op. 33a) and are frequently performed as an orchestral suite, go here for the final interlude - "the Storm" which sums up the mood of the climactic section of the opera.  The Passacaglia was also published separately (as op. 33b), and is also often performed, either together with the Sea Interludes or by itself. Both the opera and the Four Sea Interludes are among my favorites.

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