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Peter Grimes
(by Benjamin Britten)

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Opera in a prologue and three acts.

First performance: June 7, 1945 at Sadlers Wells, London, England

This opera has a grim and dark story. It is a powerful and mysterious tale of social exclusion, hatred and injustice. The Sadlers Wells company was at first wary of premiering this opera but in fact from its first very performance in 1945 (with Peter Pears playing the role of Peter Grimes) it was an instant success, and has remained popular ever since, especially with English audiences.

Juri Batukov as the lawyer Swallow in an 2008 production of the opera Peter Grimes.
Photo: Pitichinaccio.


Fisherman Peter Grimes is put on trial in his village for the mysterious death at sea of his most recent apprentice. He is found not guilty but advised not to take on any more apprentices.

Peter Grimes is socially excluded by all his fellow villagers with the exception of the widowed school teacher, Ellen Orford. Ellen encourages him, though without success, to leave the village with her.

Grimes takes on another apprentice and tells Captain Bastrode that he fervently desires to become a successful fisherman and to marry Ellen.

The new apprentice, John, is seen by Ellen with bruising and torn clothes. Ellen objects to Grimes who reacts by striking her.

The villagers form a mob and go to Grimes's house to confront him. To avoid the mob, Grimes takes John to the top of a cliff where the latter accidentally falls over the edge.

A few days later John's jersey is found washed up on the shore and again a mob of villagers go off in search of Grimes.

Ellen and Bastrode confront Grimes and advise him that the only way for him is to sail his boat out to sea and deliberately sink it there and drown himself.

Study Notes

Audiences identify with the true-to-life drama of this opera with its tortured anti-hero, Peter Grimes, as the central figure. Grimes is harsh and sadistic to his apprentices and yet poetic in his struggle to gain acceptance in life. He is an outsider – the first of a number of outsiders that appear in Britten's operas – and some critics argue that these outsider heroes reflected Britten's own position as an outsider in his society and his time (Britten was both a homosexual and a conscientious objector).

The opera's music is built around the tortured relationship between Grimes and his community.

English audiences also identify with the role of the sea in the opera, the sea being an ever-present and beautiful and yet often harsh and unforgiving environment for inhabitants of the small island that is Britain.

Benjamin Britten was inspired to write Peter Grimes after reading George Crabbe's 1810 poem The Borough concerning a sadistic, almost psychopathic fisherman and his relationship with the community where he lived.

Peter Grimes is not only the finest opera by Benjamin Britten; it is also the first major opera written in the English language since Dido and Aeneus (1689) by Henry Purcell.

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Author: David Paul Wagner
(David Paul Wagner on Google+)

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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