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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)
Richard Taruskin

The “social problematic” may have been the initial impetus for Britten and Pears to build their scenario around the figure of Peter Grimes, but the portrait (already emphasized by Forster) of the furtive outcast brooding in the lonely estuary engaged a different level of response in them. It led to the thorough recasting of the title role, and the whole surrounding dramatic plot. “A central feeling for us,” Britten later told an interviewer,

was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation. As conscientious objectors we were out of it. We couldn't say we suffered physically, but naturally we experienced tremendous tension. I think it was partly this feeling which led us to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is, rather than the villain he was in Crabbe.18

Social Themes and Leitmotives

fig. 5-2 Britten's Peter Grimes in its first production, Sadler's Wells Company, London (now the English National Opera), 1945.

Like Shostakovich in The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (another opera that had impressed Britten and that he would emulate), the composer saw his task with respect to his title character as one of exoneration. He and Pears went even further than Shostakovich or Berg had gone in softening the portrait of their hero, making him the innocent (if blundering) victim of prejudice and unjustified persecution. As Pears put it in an article advertising a broadcast performance in 1946, “Grimes is not a hero nor is he an operatic villain.” What is he then?

He is very much of an ordinary weak person who, being at odds with the society in which he finds himself, tries to overcome it and, in doing so, offends against the conventional code, is classed by society as a criminal, and destroyed as such. There are plenty of Grimeses around still, I think!19

In the opera Grimes is given two apprentices, not three. The Prologue, unpreceded by any overture, portrays an inquest into the death of the first, who had died of thirst aboard Grimes's boat during an ill-advised journey of several days to London. The death is attributed to “accidental circumstances,” but Grimes is given a warning not to expect the benefit of the doubt in the future.

To reduce the story, as Britten and Pears recast it, to its barest bones: in act I, Grimes (against the advice of the inquest magistrate) procures another apprentice with the assistance of Ellen Orford, the village schoolteacher (a character transplanted from a different part of Crabbe's The Borough), whom he hopes to marry after clearing his name and gaining the town's respect by prospering. In act II, against Ellen's passionate entreaties, Grimes forces the exhausted (and, as Ellen has discovered, roughly treated) new boy out to sea on a Sunday in pursuit of a big shoal of herring. Or so he intends; goaded to hurry perilously by Grimes (who hears an approaching posse of villagers opposed to his plan), the apprentice loses his footing on a cliff side and falls—again accidentally—to his death. In act III, the apprentice's jersey is discovered on the beach and a manhunt is organized to bring Grimes to justice; he eludes them, but turns up later, dazed and incoherent, and is discovered by Ellen and by Captain Balstrode, a retired skipper (and Peter's only other defender), who now orders him to row out to sea and sink his boat rather than face the implacable if mistaken judgment of the townspeople.

But are they mistaken? Grimes, while no murderer, is indeed responsible for the boy's death. Yet without the fanatical posse of villagers at his heels, he would not have treated the boy so recklessly. The theme of ambiguously shared guilt, already broached by Crabbe, is thus starkly dramatized. The preponderance of guilt is subtly shifted to the townspeople by showing them biased against Grimes from the start, and by showing him to be, as Britten put it, an idealist, full of poetic visions and wholesome aspirations, and therefore morally superior, at least by inclination, to the crowd that condemns him—just as, in the view of the opera's creators, their own status as conscientious objectors was morally superior to that of a society then engaged in bloody warfare, which persecuted pacifists, and yet to which they were now committed to return. (Although Britten and Pears were ultimately dealt with leniently on the strength of their artistic reputations, their fears were not unjustified: the less lucky Michael Tippett was imprisoned for refusing military service in 1943, shortly before Britten embarked on the score).

As soon as the character was reconceived in this way it became possible to assign his part to Pears's tenor range rather than to the traditional villain's baritone, as in the earliest scenario drafts. That may even have been a reason in itself for the transformation of the title role. The most explicit portrayal of Grimes's positive side comes at the end of the first scene in act I, right before a big storm—obviously symbolic but, given the locale, also realistic—blows up. Balstrode exhorts Peter to marry Ellen before taking a new apprentice, so as to quiet gossip and give himself a fresh start. Grimes rejects the idea. “I have my visions, my fiery visions,” he insists. “They call me dreamer, they scoff at my dreams and my ambition.” But first he'll make himself rich—“These Borough gossips listen to money, only to money”—and then he'll marry Ellen. In this way he will achieve peace—a word that, as we can imagine, carried for Britten and Pears a powerful multiple charge. The last words in the scene, sung right before the storm breaks in the orchestra (an entr'acte famous in its own right as a concert piece), is Peter's apostrophe to peace (Ex. 5-1):

  • What harbour shelters peace,
  • Away from tidal waves, away from storms?
  • What harbour can embrace
  • terrors and tragedies?
  • With her there'll be no quarrels,
  • with her the mood will stay.
  • Her heart is harbour, too,
  • where night is turned to day.

Social Themes and LeitmotivesSocial Themes and LeitmotivesSocial Themes and Leitmotives

ex. 5-1 Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Act I, scene 1, “What Harbour Shelters Peace?”

The words are by Montagu Slater, Britten's old collaborator in the Left Theatre, who accepted the task of turning the scenario into a full-fledged libretto after Isherwood, Britten's first choice, declined. The music, while conventionally lyrical and voice-dominated, hence “Verdian” rather than “Wagnerian” (to cite the pigeonholes into which twentieth-century operas were customarily slotted), consists nevertheless of a tissue of tiny leitmotives. One is the rising ninth with which Peter's long-breathed “peaceful” phrases all begin. It is first heard at the end of the Prologue, at the resolution of an unaccompanied passage (which Britten somewhat ironically called the “love duet”) in which Ellen calms the distraught Peter at the end of the inquest (Ex. 5-2). The two singers begin at odds (indeed, in seemingly “remote” keys linked by the shared A♭G♯), and achieve all'unisono concord in Ellen's E major.

Another leitmotif, more obvious in the context of Ex. 5-1, is one associated with the gathering storm, to which Grimes sings lines—“away from tidal waves, away from storms,” and “terrors and tragedies”—that contrast with the peace for which he longs, as his marcato vocal delivery contrasts with the dominating bel canto luxuriance of his vision.

Social Themes and LeitmotivesSocial Themes and Leitmotives

ex. 5-2 Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, unaccompanied duet at end of Prologue

The dramatic crux of the opera, the turning point that seals Peter's tragic fate, comes in the first scene of act II: his stormy quarrel with Ellen over his treatment of the boy, which culminates in his single act of violence on stage when in frustration he strikes out at Ellen and knocks her knitting basket to the ground. The scene is played against a background of Sunday morning congregational singing coming from the church offstage, one of the many “genre” touches that give the opera its naturalistic atmosphere. Like many astute musical dramatists, but especially Verdi, Britten sought every opportunity to integrate the foreground and background through irony. (Another instance came during the previous act, when Grimes, awaiting the arrival of the new apprentice in the town tavern at the height of the storm, tries to join in a round that the townspeople are singing to keep their spirits up, but fails so miserably to keep the tune that he almost wrecks the song for everyone; what could more graphically convey his condition as a social misfit?)

As this calamitous climax approaches, Ellen suggests that the two of them may have been mistaken in thinking that together they might have ended the pattern of cruel behavior that had brought the town's suspicion on Grimes. He flies into a rage (Ex. 5-3a), mocking the comfort he had formerly taken in his vision of domestic tranquillity by singing a contorted parody of the rising-ninth motif (“Wrong to plan! Wrong to try! Wrong to live! Right to die!”) that first fails to achieve its goal, stalling at F, a major seventh above the starting note (pushed further, but only as far as an octave), and finally reverses direction, crashing back precipitously from the high A♭ that had been the original goal.

Social Themes and Leitmotives

ex. 5-3a Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Act II, scene 1, “Wrong to plan!”

That F is an ominous note for more reasons than its not being A♭. It had been functioning all during the scene as one of the offstage choir's reciting notes (in alternation with B, a sinister tritone away), to which Grimes's tormentors had been singing their unwittingly ironic, hypocritically moralizing commentary to the foreground events. As the crisis nears, the congregation, chanting on F, takes up the Creed. Their note passes to a pair of horns that provides a steady dissonant pedal to underscore the quarrel onstage—dissonant, that is, until Ellen joins their note with the terrible words, “Peter, we've failed!” (Ex. 5-3b).

Social Themes and Leitmotives

ex. 5-3b Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Act II, scene 1, “Peter, we've failed!”

At this very point, when Peter strikes Ellen and loses all hope of breaking the pattern of his life, the choir of townsfolk is heard again, intoning a “Amen” to their insistent F. And then, most horrible of all, Peter Grimes himself takes up the dread pitch, translating their very word (“So be it!”) and resolving the F as a dominant to his highest note, B♭, as he sings “And God have mercy upon me!” and rushes offstage in pursuit of the boy. Recalling the way in which Ellen had musically brought him round at the end of their “love duet,” it is hard to escape the appalling perception that, in accepting from the offstage congregation the note (and even the word) to which his persecutors have sung the triumphant conclusion of their Creed, Peter has implicitly accepted their judgment of him. Bereft of his dream of redemption, he is now, in his own eyes as well as theirs, a criminal to be condemned. And now we have the explanation for his hopeless final acceptance of Captain Balstrode's legally unjustified sentence of death.

The phrase to which Grimes has sung his exit line (and death warrant) now becomes the leitmotif that will dominate the rest of the scene, and more. Immediately repeated by braying brass in a raucous sequence to fix it in the listener's memory, it then becomes the main theme of the choral episode that depicts the gathering of the posse that will eventually intrude on Grimes's hut and bring about the tragic dénouement. But it is not only a theme: it pervades the music, serving now as accompaniment, now as offstage organ voluntary, and sometimes with its contour partially inverted.

Social Themes and Leitmotives

ex. 5-4 Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Act II, scene 1, “Grimes is at his exercise”

Although it involves real-time action, the episode is constructed in part like an aria with a refrain; and that refrain, sung to the new leitmotif, is the chilling line from Crabbe (one of the few original verses to survive into the libretto) that had established both the town's contempt for Grimes and their indifferent complicity: “Grimes is at his exercise” (Ex. 5-4). The climax comes when the whole town (excepting Ellen and Balstrode) shout the charge of “Murder!” to the strident inversion of the ninth in which Grimes had vested all his hope (Ex. 5-5).

All rush off but for a quartet of women, including Ellen, who remain alone onstage and sing one of the opera's famous set pieces, a pained commentary on the harsh life of the fishing community and the toll it takes on morals—a commentary given added ironic point by being sung, apart from Ellen, by the innkeeper (“Auntie”) and her “nieces,” the girls she keeps to provide the men of the town with comfort services: three women, in other words, identified by hypocritical convention as immoral, but alone (with Ellen) exhibiting a humanity which the town's more respectable citizens have been exposed as lacking.

Social Themes and Leitmotives

ex. 5-5 Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Act II, scene 1, “Murder!”

Their lyrical quartet is mainly a respite from the mordant leitmotivery of the rest of the scene, but even here a note of irony lurks to complement the irony of Slater's text, with its reference to the “bitter treasure of [the menfolks’] love.” A pair of flutes introduces each verse of the quartet with a dissonant ritornello (sometimes compared with the voices of seagulls supplementing the rocking waves of the sea as depicted in the accompanying strings) that in its two phrases spans a pair of descending ninths, now irrevocably associated with Grimes's tragedy.

We are not finished with the main leitmotif of that tragedy, however. “God have mercy upon me,” also known as “Grimes is at his exercise,” now reverberates—at its original pitch, stretched out to a length of eleven beats, and unfolding at the slow tread of a funeral march replete with muffled drumbeats—as the ground bass of the orchestral passacaglia that serves as interlude between the two scenes of act II (Ex. 5-6). Like Berg's Wozzeck and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth, Britten's opera relies heavily on interludes, not only as a way of filling the time between scenes, but as a vehicle of manipulative authorial commentary.

The interludes in Peter Grimes, it has been observed, alternate in function between scene setting (at the beginning of acts) and meditations on the hero's fate (in the middles), with the Storm in the middle of act I combining both roles. Britten's Passacaglia directly parallels the one that comes midway through the second act of Shostakovich's opera. Like the latter, and like the much shorter entr'acte after the murder in the third act of Wozzeck, it forces the audience to reflect obsessively (along with the title character) on a cataclysmic turn of events. In an early draft, Britten had associated the passacaglia with the “boy's suffering,” and by using a solo viola in counterpoint against the ground at the outset, turns the interlude into a personal lament (an impression the use of solo strings conventionally conveys; one does not have to know that the viola was the instrument that, after the piano, Britten played best).


(18) Murray Schafer, British Composers in Interview (1963); quoted in Brett, Peter Grimes, p. 190.

(19) Pete Pears, “Neither a Hero Nor a Villain” (1946); Brett, Peter Grimes, p. 152.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Standoff (I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005005.xml