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Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" is certainly not a "barihunk opera" like "Billy Budd" or "Rape of Lucretia," but it is one opera's greatest pieces of theater. The opera premiered on June 7, 1945 and was the first opera to be performed at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre near the end of the Second World War.
Britten’s first full length, and possibly best known, opera originated in part from the composer’s reading of the article ‘George Crabbe: the Poet and the Man’ by E.M. Forster, which appeared in The Listener in May 1941. It was through Forster that Britten developed an interest in the work of Crabbe, a fellow East Anglian, a curate as well as a writer born in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh on the east coast of England in 1754. Peter Pears purchased a volume of Crabbe’s poetry shortly after Britten read Forster’s article and, as he was later to inscribe in the flyleaf of the book, it was from his and Britten’s reading of the long poem ‘The Borough’ that “we started work on the plans for making an opera out of Peter Grimes”.
Britten and Pears were at the time resident in the United States and had of course come into contact with a number of American musicians and music lovers. They met Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian born American conductor who became a champion of the young composer’s work. The Koussevitzky Music Foundation was set up to support the encouragement of new music and it was through this that Britten was awarded a $1,000 commission to write an opera. Britten realised his debt of gratitude to the conductor and the opera is dedicated to the memory of Koussevitsky’s wife Natalie. It was Koussevitsky’s request that Britten’s manuscript of the full score of Peter Grimes remain in America and it can seen at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
Philip Langridge: "Old Joe has gone fishing":
In 1942 Britten and Pears returned to England, but it was not until January 1944 that work was begun on the opera. Composition took place while Britten was living in the converted Mill in Snape, five miles from Aldeburgh. The scenario was selected from one section of George Crabbe’s poem about the lives of people on the Suffolk coast. For Crabbe, Peter Grimes was a sadistic figure whose rough ways earn little sympathy from the reader. The character is, however, depicted somewhat differently in Britten’s opera. The story was adapted by Montagu Slater, with the assistance of Britten, Pears, Ronald Duncan and Eric Crozier. The Grimes of Britten’s opera, although isolated and at times violent, is more to be pitied than despised. In the words of Peter Pears he is ‘neither a hero, nor a villain’.
[Material adapted from Britten-Pears Foundation]
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