Showcase March-April 2014 - page 24

Program Notes
mar 22, 23
Benjamin Britten
Born:
November 22, 1913, Lowestoft
Died:
December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh
Four Sea Interludes
from
Peter Grimes,
Opus 33a
24
MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA SHOWCASE
eter Grimes
, one of the great operas of the
20th century, depends for much of its force
on Britten’s superb evocation of the harsh and
violent Suffolk coast. But surprisingly enough,
the opera got its start in Southern California.
Britten had left England for Long Island in 1939,
believing that his homeland was blocked to him as an
artist and intending to make a new life in America.
After bouts of ill health he wished for a warmer climate,
and he accepted an invitation to spend the summer of
1941 in Escondido, just north of San Diego. Britten and
Peter Pears drove an ancient car across the country,
reaching their destination that spring.
from poem to opera
Early that summer, Pears bought a volume of the poetry
of George Crabbe, with which the two young men now
found themselves enthralled. Crabbe (1754-1832), from
Britten’s own Suffolk, had a bleak vision of mankind
and of Suffolk life. To a friend in Long Island, Britten
wrote: “We’ve just re-discovered the poetry of George
Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited—maybe
an opera one day—!”
Britten was particularly taken with Crabbe’s
The
Borough
(1810), which tells of a deadly collision
between a Suffolk fishing village—which represents
convention, religion, law and smugness—and Peter
Grimes, an outcast, violent, perhaps demented, yet
longing for acceptance by the community he despises.
And when Serge Koussevitzky commissioned an opera
from Britten the following winter, he chose this as his
subject. The composer returned to England in April
1942, fired by a new passion for his native Suffolk.
He composed
Peter Grimes
in 1944-45, and its premiere
in June 1945 was a triumph.
The opera is in three acts, and as preludes to the acts
or as interludes between scenes Britten composed six
orchestral interludes, brief mood-pieces designed to
set a scene, establish a mood or hint at character. Even
before the opera had been produced, Britten assembled
an orchestral suite made up of four of these, which he
called
Sea Interludes,
and led the London Philharmonic
Orchestra in its premiere on June 14, 1945.
dawn.
The first interlude comes at the conclusion of the
opera’s opening
Prologue
, during which the Borough
questions Grimes about the death of his previous
apprentice. Here is gray daybreak on the bleak Suffolk
coast, evoked by the high, clear, pure sound of unison
flutes and violins. This is haunting, evocative music,
full of the cries of sea birds, the hiss of surf across rocky
beaches, and—menacing in the deep brass—the swell of
the sea itself.
sunday morning.
The second interlude, the prelude to Act
II, opens with the sound of church bells pealing madly
in the horns and woodwinds. The strings have the theme
one character, Ellen Orford, sings in praise of the sunny
sea: “Glitter of waves / And glitter of sunlight / Bid us
rejoice / And lift our hearts high.”
moonlight.
A portrait of the tranquil sea, broken by
splashes of sound from flute, xylophone and harp, serves
as the prelude to the opera’s third act.
storm.
The concluding selection depicts a storm that
strikes the coasts; it forms the interlude between Scenes 1
and 2 of Act I. The violence of the opening gives way to a
more subdued central section before the storm breaks out
again and drives the music to its powerful close. Britten
noted: “…My life as a child was colored by the fierce
storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast and ate
away whole stretches of neighboring cliffs. In writing
Peter Grimes
, I wanted to express my awareness of the
perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood
depends on the sea.”
Instrumentation:
2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes,
2 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon,
4 horns, 2 trumpets, piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani,
chimes in B-flat and E-flat, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals,
tam-tam, tambourine, xylophone, harp and strings
E.B.
p
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