Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes

Notes by TŌN violinist Adam Jeffreys

The Opera
Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes are a set of pieces taken from his opera Peter Grimes. The opera follows the titular English fisherman, who is alienated from his hometown following the accidental death of his apprentice. Grimes endeavors to improve his standing in town by shaking off his impoverishment so that he can propose to Ellen Orford. He takes on a new apprentice to help him in his trade, despite the ire of the townspeople. After finding bruises on the child, the community jumps to conclusions and rushes to confront Grimes. The second apprentice accidentally falls to his death, and Grimes drowns himself at sea to avoid facing a mob which has already determined him to be a murderer.

The Interludes
Originally written for scene changes, Britten reworked the endings of each interlude so that they could be presented as four movements in a stand-alone piece. In its original setting, the first interlude, “Dawn,” introduces Act I. Following a gloomy prologue, it opens with a lamentful song in the strings and winds which the chorus would repeat later. The brass enter with broad chords that, to me, evoke a panoramic view of the ocean and which become calamitous, foreshadowing future tragedy. Following this, “Sunday Morning” starts Act II and begins with blocky rhythms that contrast with steady pulses given by the brass and later by bells. These pulses are reminiscent of church bells, and give way to lyrical moments where the strings present a melody that would be sung by Ellen in Act II. The third interlude, “Moonlight,” precedes Act III, and has a somber character. Following the death of Grimes’ second apprentice, it has both harmonic motion and a sense of motionlessness due to the slow and repetitive rhythm of the movement. Finally, the fourth interlude, “The Storm,” is taken from the second half of Act I, where the townspeople find refuge from the elements at a bar. Swells and chromatic runs invoke crashing waves which recede so that the melody sung by Peter Grimes as he sinks below the waves in the finale can be presented.

The Homosexual Hypothesis
Peter Grimes is an outcast, alienated by a society that despises him for reasons that seem incomplete. While he was suspected of being responsible for the death of his apprentice, the resentment towards him often seems to be deeper. Since the 1970s, supporters of “the homosexual hypothesis” have argued that Grimes faces ostracization because he is gay. He internalizes society’s judgement, and this is argued to have fostered self-oppression, where self-hatred corrodes personality. There are compelling arguments for this theory involving alterations made to the original libretto for the opera, the nature of his proposal to Ellen, and an abundance of coded language. This is not the only time that Benjamin Britten, an openly gay man who faced the illegality of his sexuality, covertly engaged with topics surrounding homosexuality in his music. Ultimately, the tale of Peter Grimes is best summarized by Britten himself when he described the plot as being “a subject very close to my heart—the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.”