Peter Grimes, Opera by B. Britten

It was a chance discovery that led to Benjamin Britten writing Peter Grimes, his first opera and the work that sealed his international reputation.

Living in effective exile in the United States, Britten happened upon a copy of George Crabbe’s 1810 collection of poems, The Borough, set in the bleak coastal environment of eastern England where the composer had grown up. A mix of homesickness coupled with a personal identification with the sense of alienation felt by Crabbe's Grimes compelled Britten to create a full-scale musical exposition based on the character.

Premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London on 7 June 1945, Britten’s opera pits its eponymous antihero against the community he lives in. A fisherman, who has already seen one of the town’s boys drown on his watch, arouses suspicion when he seeks to recruit another. When his new apprentice dies in a freak accident, the Borough’s men round on him with only Ellen, its schoolmistress, prepared to come to his defence.

Peter Grimes is a tragedy that is peculiarly English yet universal in its depiction of a man at odds with the world around him. It is also one of the most haunting evocations ever created of our relationship with the sea, with each section of the orchestra pressing urgently to contribute its own distinctive colour to the palette from which Britten crafts his music.

Given Britten’s status as a conscientious objector, Peter Grimes’ success, first performed only a month after VE Day, was something of a vindication for his beliefs. Now making a welcome return to the Vienna State Opera, Peter Grimes, like no other work in the genre, reminds us of the brutality of human society when circumstances set its people against one another.

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