Benjamin Britten (England, 1913–76)
Libretto Montagu Slater (England, 1902–56)
Based on The Borough, poem by George Crabbe (England, 1754–1832)
Premiere Sadlers Wells, 7 June 1945
‘The Borough’, a fishing village on the Suffolk
coast (Aldeburgh), around 1830
Plot in brief When his young apprentice dies at sea in suspicious circumstances, villagers rise against outsider-fisherman Peter Grimes. Compassionate widow Ellen Orford helps him get another apprentice; but he dies accidentally too, and the villagers hound Grimes to madness and suicide.
Other characters Balstrode, jovial retired captain; Swallow, pompous lawyer; Hobson, yokel dogsbody; Ned Keene, drug-dealing jack-the-lad; Auntie, pub owner and brothel madame; Nieces, the village tarts; Rev Adams, ineffectual parson; Bob Boles, ranting, drunken Methodist; Mrs Sedley, old snob, drug addict and amateur sleuth.
What is Englishness? Your tick-list would probably include village pubs, humour, seafaring, the language, the legal system, innate conservatism, and that strange mix of politeness and suppressed violence. Your tick-list would probably not include open displays of passion, red-hot romance, or food.
If you were compiling your list in 1942, at any rate. In that year Benjamin Britten and his lover Peter Pears were sailing back to England after sitting out earlier hostilities in the US. As the SS Axel Johnson dodged Nazi submarines in the Atlantic swell, England’s hot-shot young composer was making sketches for an opera on the ship’s stationery. Its subject was a homecoming too, inspired by a lengthy poem about the harsh life in a Suffolk coastal village, the area that Britten grew up in, and in whose austere seclusion he was to feel at home for the rest of his life.
That poem was The Borough, written by a country parson called George Crabbe in 1810. It’s a sprawling soap opera about life in Aldeburgh, masquerading as ‘the Borough’. He evidently didn’t care much for the poor and disadvantaged; he writes with arm’s-length distaste, as if about some wretched fourth-world tribe. (You can find the lot online at Project Gutenberg.) One part of Crabbe’s tedious epic concerns Peter Grimes – a greedy fisherman and Health & Safety officer’s nightmare, who loses three apprentices in accidents and dies in mad despair at his misdeeds.
Second-rate the poem may be, but there was something uniquely, meatily English about it. Britten’s imagination was fired. Writer and poet Montagu Slater took the character of Grimes, added people from other poems in Crabbe’s collection (such as Ellen Orford), threw in a few of his own, cut-and-pasted a few of Crabbe’s stodgy rhyming couplets (‘O hang at open doors the net the cork’, for example) and fashioned a libretto for Britten. (A PDF of the whole thing is on Italian broadcaster RAI's website.)
Peter Grimes was premiered in 1945 at Sadlers Wells to instant success. Bus conductors would shout out “Next stop, Peter Grimes, the murdering fisherman!” as they approached the theatre. To audiences looking to rebuild a country whose bricks and mortar, but not whose spirit, had been devastated by war, here was something artistic to celebrate: a new work in English, about England, by an Englishman, with a totally English look-and-feel. It marked a new start for English opera, which had been comatose since the baroque gems of Henry Purcell nearly 300 years previously. Handel had enjoyed huge success in the 1700s, but he was a German writing in an Italianate style; the swamping of home-grown talent by glitzy international stars just here for the money is not a problem invented by Premiership football. But Grimes established Britten as a major international talent, and is performed regularly throughout the world.
A world that will have many of its preconceptions about the English resolutely confirmed by the opera. You will search the score in vain for declarations of romantic love, outbursts of passion, or hints of decent food. But you will find rich evocations of village pubs, humour, seafaring, the language, the legal system, innate conservatism, and that mix of politeness and violence. Perhaps only tea is missing.
Its genius is more than mere nationalist ingredients. Britten’s opera is a composing tour de force incorporating all the classic opera ingredients: recitatives, solos, duos, trios, choruses, offstage religious chorus, military march, a dance, a drinking session, a mad scene and so on. There are nods to English folk song, such as in the villagers’ opening and closing choruses, or Hobson’s rustic lament about going from pub to pub. The opening court scene is a chopped-up sea-shanty. There’s even what sounds like a public-information film soundtrack (‘Fool to let it come to this’).
Grimes is as short on luscious romantic melodies as the Suffolk coast is on edelweiss. Little Rodgers’n’Hammerstein-style technicolour here: Britain’s eastern shore, gnawed at by North Sea storms, its bleak villages shrouded in mist, sits out most of the year in damp tones of grey. Britten – born in Lowestoft – knew these colours and moods well, and much of the music stunningly evokes the clammy terror and fogbound claustrophobia of dirt-poor village life-on-the-edge. Indeed, four orchestral interludes have become a concert item in their own right.
But there is great beauty here too. Ellen Orford, the Borough’s only voice of compassion, sings soothing, shapely descending lines – listen to the way she calms down the mob when offering to go with Hobson to collect the boy in Act I. Characterisation in the music is rich and vivid everywhere. Old fusspot Mrs Sedley is repetitive and nagging; officious Swallow sings pompous tunes; Hobson has a folksy simplicity; soapboxer Boles quivers and rants high up; Balstrode has strong, reliable melodies; the Nieces simper and whine in girly tandem; Rev Adams quavers effetely; Auntie robustly commands; Ned Keene has a music-hall nod-and-wink.
And there’s Grimes himself. As befits a man outside in every sense, his music rarely connects with the rest. In the courtroom at the start he ignores Swallow’s set pace and melody, and goes at his own speed on a different harmonic path. When he stumbles into the pub near the end of Act I he’s rhapsodising to himself like a man possessed about stars and fate and the universe, and though he tries to sing along with the crowd in ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’, he can only shout disjointedly over them. In the heart-rending soliloquy at the end, fragments of earlier music come back. All the while his name is chanted fatefully by the offstage chorus, echoing the ominous summons of the opera’s first words.
Whatever Englishness is, it has changed radically since 1972, never mind 1942, while rural 1830 is a lost world. But a powerful core remains. Peter Grimes, once an expression of that Englishness, has become part of that core.
© Rob Ainsley 2008