Britten – Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op. 33a

by Max Derrickson

Benjamin Britten   (b in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, November 22, 1913 (St. Cecilia’s Day); d in Aldeburgh, England, December 4, 1976)

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op. 33a

1. Dawn
2. Sunday Morning
3. Moonlight
4. Storm


Britten’s operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes, is the timeless and grim tale of how, when a society cannot face its own demons, it purges its collective soul by demonizing something.  The opera is set in Aldeburgh, a real town in Suffolk on the east coast of the British Isles, and a real man named Peter Grimes lived there sometime in the late 18th Century.  British poet George Crabbe was a resident of Aldeburgh, and in 1810 set the woeful tale to a poem he called “The Burrough.”  Benjamin Britten also lived in that town from 1938 until his death, and grew up just 30 miles from Aldeburgh.  The opera narrates the story of the gruff fisherman, Peter Grimes, held responsible for the deaths of his young apprentices (his fishing “first mates”), who is then demonized by his fellow villagers, finally going insane from the guilt they inflict upon him.

[. . .]

The Four Sea Interludes is Britten’s first suite and is taken from the purely instrumental moments in the opera.  Dawn occurs between the opening Prologue and Act I, after Grimes has been questioned about the death of his first apprentice.  It paints the timelessness of the morning quietude on the ocean, with the high strings singing like gulls, the arpeggiated chords whirling like sparkling sun-diamonds reflected off the sea.  Amidst this, however, is foreboding – in the early grey mists there is a bleakness to the waterscape.

Sunday Morning is the Prelude to Act II.   Horns portray church bells welcoming folk to worship, and the music captures, briefly, the beautiful maritime morning and the elated feelings of the villagers.  [. . .]

Moonlight is the beautiful Introduction to Act III, the finale, which includes the villagers’ striking up a posse to avenge the latest apprentice’s “accidental” death, as Peter Grimes walks the beach at night and goes mad, speaking to his deceased apprentices, even to a future apprentice who will never actually work for him.  [. . .]

Storm backtracks to the night between Scenes 1 and 2 in the first Act when the villagers completely lose faith in Grimes.  [. . .]