Sir Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, for orchestra, Op. 33a
2. Sunday Morning
Benjamin Britten was a composer who understood the human condition deeply and with great compassion. He was also a composer of great technical skill, and the combination undoubtedly makes him one of the greatest of 20 th century communicators in music.
The opera Peter Grimes was his coming of age, being written during the later years of the Second World War (1943-44) when he was 30, and it exploded onto the musical scene of tired, drab, post-war England . Set in the East Anglia of Britten's home, it was inspired by the poem “The Borough” by the 18 th century English poet George Crabbe (a contemporary of Blake and Burns). But whereas Crabbe's hero is simply surly and destructive, Britten's Grimes is a tortured soul, divided both against himself and against society. The two combine fatally, and his destruction becomes assured.
The opera had a rough ride in rehearsal, with much antagonism and jealousy from some quarters. Both Britten and Peter Pears, his life-long companion, were conscientious objectors, and this was held as criticism of them and (by an illogical association) of the whole enterprise. But the opera was a huge success, and was soon staged all over Europe and North America . It still has the power to grip and hold an audience which is rare in any opera, let alone a 20 th century English opera.
There are three main protagonists in the opera – the schizophrenic Grimes himself (so divided he is almost two characters), the force of public opinion (represented by the chorus), and the enveloping world in which the drama unfolds. This last is represented by the orchestra, and the Sea Interludes are not just scene painting in sound but are an essential part of the flow of the drama. There are actually six in the opera, of which he took four to form this separate concert work.
“Dawn” is grey and bleak: high violins and flutes in unison suggest a huge sky, arpeggios on harp, clarinet and violas gently rippling waves, and low brass underneath them both are like a heavy swell.
“Sunday Morning” is time for church, and Britten implies the sound of bells in the tolling horn chords and syncopated chiming of the woodwind. This is contrasted with a smooth tune on the strings – like a hymn tune on the church harmonium.
In “Moonlight” the sea surges gently, but the quietly ominous modulations and hard glitter of flutes and harps suggest the implacable power of the ocean, and the part it will play in Grimes' imminent tragedy.
Finally the “Storm”, which is (for this writer) the most terrifying storm music ever written. This is not just the elemental world of nature - that's scary enough - but this storm is out to kill. Amid the whirl of wind and rain there is at its heart a moment of suspense as Peter Grimes makes his heart-rending plea “What harbour shelters peace?”. He is answered only by the roar of the tempest.