Opera in 3 acts and a prologue (duration 2 hours 30 minutes)
Libretto by Montagu Slater based on a poem by George Crabbe
A quick introduction
When was it written?
January 1944-10 February 1945. The first performance was on 7 June 1945 at Sadler’s Wells, London.
What’s it about?
Britten’s first large-scale opera tells the story of Suffolk fisherman Peter Grimes, who lives in the small fishing village of The Borough. Grimes is a complex character, both sympathetic and brutish, and often scapegoated by the gossipy, hypocritical residents of the village. Grimes’ tale is a tragic one – his life ends at sea, as the villagers continue to go about their business.
What does it sound like?
Like the character of Grimes, Britten’s music conjures up a complex vision of both beauty and the harshness of human behaviour, with dramatic orchestral music, powerful choruses, and beautiful solo arias. It is perhaps most famous for its orchestral Sea Interludes, depicting the ever-changing coastal landscape.
Watch & listen
Did you know?
- The opera is based on part of a poem by Suffolk poet George Crabbe entitled The Borough, a fictional version of Aldeburgh. Britten and Peter Pears (who was Grimes in the first performance) came across a volume of Crabbe’s works in a bookshop in Los Angeles in 1941 during their stay in the USA. Britten’s nostalgia for East Anglia was one of the reasons he and Pears returned to the UK in 1942.
- 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.
- The opera was a huge critical and popular success after its premiere at Sadler’s Wells, London in June 1945.
- 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.
- In 2013, Peter Grimes truly came home: an outdoor production, Grimes on the Beach, took place on Aldeburgh beach during the 2013 Festival.
Time and Place: The Borough, a fishing village, East Anglian coast, around 1830
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.
For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit thepublisher pages at Boosey & Hawkes.