The cruel story of a Suffolk fisherman accused of murdering his boy apprentices has gripped opera audiences for 50 years. Andrew Stewart looks at the social compassion, homesickness and white-hot creativity which led to the twentieth century’s most important British opera.
Fifty years after the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, it is easy to take the work’s international success for granted. But the decision to reopen Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 7 June 1945 with a new and ‘difficult’ work was not universally approved by members of the resident opera company, back in London after a depressing, energy-sapping period of wartime regional touring.
The bleak tale of narrow-minded Suffolk folk and a ‘sadistic fisherman’ hardly seemed suitable for the restoration of operatic life to the capital. But the company’s manager, Joan Cross, kept faith with Grimes, defending it against attack from a group of hostile singers, and was rewarded by the approval of critics and public alike.
Eric Crozier, who directed the work’s original production, recalled that ‘the title Peter Grimes was not an obviously attractive one; yet on the first night and at subsequent performances an atmosphere was engendered in that theatre which in my experience was unique.’ Almost overnight, Britten was recognised as the creator of an ‘English’ work fit to hold its place in the repertoire of the world’s leading opera houses.
Many were surprised that the composer had hit the mark with his first opera, unaware of the groundwork achieved during Britten’s stay in North America between 1939 and 1942. There he had collaborated with W H Auden on Paul Bunyan, a sure-footed, tuneful operetta that revealed his innate flair for music drama.
At the time of the premiere of Grimes, Britten wrote that it had been his aim ‘to restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell’. The composer’s ambition was aided by his librettist, the left-wing playwright Montagu Slater, who fashioned a convincing, if at times cluttered, operatic scenario from part of George Crabbe’s extended narrative poem of 1810, The Borough.
A villain close to Britten’s heart
Britten resisted Slater’s attempts to transform the irredeemable figure of Crabe’s Grimes, a truly nasty piece of work, into an altogether more sympathetic character, insisting that he should clearly be seen as an outcast from society, driven to madness by his inability to conform.
The composer himself stood beyond the ken of the majority, an overt pacifist and very private homosexual who attracted public censure for prolonging his stay in the United States long after the outbreak of the Second World War. But for Britten, his return to England in 1942 came not a moment too soon. He was homesick, missing the East Anglian countryside he’d known since childhood.
By chance he discovered a copy of The Listener for 29 May 1941, complete with a transcript of E M Forster’s radio introduction to George Crabbe, a native of the Suffolk coastal town of Aldeburgh. He subsequently bought the poet’s complete works; on reading The Borough, he recalled ‘in a flash I realised two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged’.
In March 1942 Britten and his partner Peter Pears boarded the Axel Johnson, a Swedish cargo ship, for the slow journey back to England. During the voyage Britten composed a further Auden setting, the Hymn to St Cecilia, thereby lifting the creative block he’d experienced for some time and entering into a period of intense productivity crowned by the writing of Peter Grimes.
An apprentice to his mother-tongue
The free-thinking, radical intellectuals within Auden’s circle introduced Britten to a variety of new ideas and influences. It appears that Auden himself encouraged the composer to explore the poetry of Rimbaud and Donne, giving focus to his existing catholic, yet conservative, tastes in verse. Words and their musical setting offered an irresistible challenge to Britten. In 1935, Auden compiled and partly wrote the libretto for Britten’s first orchestral song-cycle, Our Hunting Fathers, a satirical look at man’s treatment (and maltreatment) of animals. Britten’s response was to produce a compassionate and vivid musical declaration of solidarity with defenceless creatures, in which solo orchestral instruments engage in dialogue with the soprano soloist.
The work’s freshness and spirit remain undimmed, although the indignant reaction of its first Norwich audience buried the work for decades. Britten’s response to words was further stretched by his 1938 settings in the original French of several Rimbaud poems, presented as the cycle for high voice and strings, Les Illuminations. One might fairly apply the epithet ‘operatic’ to both these song-cycles, such is their powerful writing for voice and dramatic treatment of text.
Auden’s influence over Britten’s wordsetting creativity was huge but in his lover Peter Pears he had both a great literary intellect and a singer gifted with the ability to extract the emotional essence of a text and deliver it with a rare subtlety of expression. In Peter Grimes Britten had Pears’s vocal powers very much in mind. It is impossible when talking about the songs written in the years preceding Grimes not to refer to Pears. Perhaps above all the Michelangelo Sonnets completed in 1940 show both the importance of Pears in Britten’s life and the singer’s unique interpretative gifts. Ambitiously setting ancient Italian, Britten deliberately embarked on an exercise in European stylisation. The moods of the poems were of all aspects of love and the texts were given broad arching melodies perfect for Pears’s voice and poetic insight. The cycle almost changed the English song tradition as Peter Grimes would later for opera.
Britten had been a wordsetter par excellence since the Four French Songs composed when he was just 14. Between 1922 and 1930, the schoolboy Britten wrote more than 50 songs, ‘most of them straight off without much forethought; others were written and rewritten many times in a determined effort to “get them right”’ he later recalled. His choice of poets and texts was wide-ranging, embracing Shakespeare, Tennyson, Shelley, Burns, the Bible and several French authors. In 1969 he revived and revised five songs from the period to texts by Walter de la Mare, a poet to whom he was drawn more than any other in his youth. The conflicts presented by de la Mare between naïve, childhood innocence and the dark side of human nature greatly appealed to Britten, who returned to examine comparable themes many times in his later work.
These and other scraps from the composer’s apprenticeship show the gradual development of word-setting skills that so distinguished Peter Grimes.
Classic CD magazine, 1996