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A Friendly Face in the Crowd

from Thursday, February28th of the year2008.

This post is reprinted on the Metropolitan Opera’s Website, along with audio examples; I recommend checking it out there! This was kind of an amazing thing to do, to write about how much I love a piece right before getting to see it; I’m touched they asked me, but, with any luck, this will convince some other people to get out and buy some tickets for the opera. Go!

Even as a kid, I felt the power of the drug of Britten’s craft. I first listened to Peter Grimes when I was 15, sitting on the floor of my parents’ house in Providence, Rhode Island. I had convinced my mother to get me the (very heavy) score out of the library, and I had bought the CD, and I came home one afternoon after school, sat down, and pressed play. Then, as now, I found the opening minute of the trial scene a little precious”“a sort of irritating, clucking series of scales in the woodwinds. Much later, I would come to realize that this is intentional writing”“the woodwinds acting like insects bothering a cow. The first line of the opera is a single name intoned on a single note: “Peter Grimes, Peter Grimes, Peter Grimes.” As Grimes takes the witness stand, muted strings dampen the twittering winds, oscillating nervously between a major key and a minor key. Then, a conversation ensues, between nervous, litigious and accusatory brass and percussion, and the gently muted low strings, all accompanying a droned middle-C. While the lawyer sings loudly, quickly, and forcefully, Grimes speaks slowly, sustained, almost half the speed of his interlocutor. The effect is beautiful and physical: at that first hearing, I remember feeling my heart rate rise and fall with each timbral shift. Britten’s treatment of that single note is like seeing a piece of fruit lit in two different ways; in one treatment, it looks like an apple for teacher, and in the other, a poisoned child-killer.1

There is a moment in Act II whose emotional complexity is, for me, the essence of what an opera can be, and, in some senses, the high-water mark against which I have evaluated every other piece of contemporary opera. After an intense orchestral passacaglia and Grimes’s abusive outburst against his apprentice (who sits on the ground, weeping), Britten offers a tender aria, “In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home.” The music isn’t fake-beautiful like a child’s music box in a horror film; it is genuinely beautiful, tender, and embracing. I recognized it as music in the service of drama: music that is a citizen of the space it is trying to describe, not unlike church music.5

As I got to know the score, I would begin to associate these moments with larger allegories of the individual versus the crowd, the homosexual struggling with acceptance; the point is not that this moment gestures out toward the political (because plenty of moments in opera do that), but that it bypasses the political and aims inward, straight for the listener.

The pacing of the first notes that Peter sings”“”I swear by almighty God””“slows the heart and resists the anxious chatter of the crowd. Alone, toward the end of the first act, Peter sings alone to himself in an awkwardly silent bar, “Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades where Earth moves / are drawing up the clouds of human grief…” all on a single pitch, the E above middle C. A weighty ensemble of muted strings creeps out from that note, painting a threatening dome of heaven.2 This, combined with the very opening gestures of the opera, felt like the real heart of this music: Peter’s refusal to participate in his environment through content (notes) or pacing (speed). Peter’s music is so lonesome, specific, and obsessive: it was irresistible to me as a teenager and irresistible to me now. Whenever he tries to sing faster, move faster, use more notes, he ends up battered by the orchestra, which functions as an agent of the violent shore as well as the tongues of the crowd.

Coming from a tradition of choral music, I always associate emotional content with intervals rather than vocal range: the bigger the jump, the bigger the power. Even as an 11-year-old chorister, I understood that Tallis was getting at something with those hard-to-execute ornaments and glottal stops: we were speaking in tongues. When Byrd has a motet constructed around a series of scales and then, suddenly, a jump of a fifth, your body knows to pay attention before your brain. As I began to investigate opera, I felt totally alienated from the Italian tradition, which seemed to me to use the voice as a vessel for the singer to perform effects rather than to express information. The soprano soared, she trilled, she gestured, and it read to me like a confection, the musical equivalent of an ice sculpture or a saucy design on top of a cappuccino.

As a teenager, trying to figure out how to synthesize my choral upbringing with the rigorous techniques of contemporary music, I was desperate to see a friendly face in the crowd, somebody wrestling with the same issues. The first ten minutes of Act II were, in a sense, like finding a long-lost twin brother. After a kinetic and frisky interlude (“Sunday Morning by the Beach”), a church bell begins calling the townspeople to church.3 Ellen and Peter’s new apprentice, John, linger, and in the distance we hear the beginnings of morning worship, rendered faithfully with a hymn, a collect, and the General Confession sung by the off-stage chorus. Ellen’s evenly-spaced notes are accompanied by the harp and an ensemble of Debussy-like violas, cellos, and double basses; her first line in this section is heartbreakingly simple: “Nothing to tell me, nothing to say?” Britten cleverly edits the General Confession so when the congregation says, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,” Ellen notices a tear in John’s coat. When they incant, “We have done those things which we ought not to have done,” she notices a bruise on the boy’s neck. Shudder, shudder, shudder; I get goose bumps just remembering this section even without listening. This, I thought at the time, was the power of opera that was absent from concert music: the awareness of the stage, the voice, the chorus, the liturgy, the orchestration, all working together in a mutually beneficial gyre.4

The dramatic layering of the opera, paradoxically, requires Britten to consolidate his musical gestures into a few simple ideas that need to expand, like gas, to fit the space they inhabit. Grimes’s motives and themes are like little individual drops of water that, when you zoom in, become as complicated and churning as the ocean. After the death of Peter’s apprentice, we have another drone piece: the Moonlight Sea Interlude, which obsesses over an E-flat in the violas and French horns, a creamy, unctuous swell. The whole piece is notated a beat away from where you think it should be, a trick of the shadows. Little shimmers of light arrive in the form of a harp and two flutes, and other instruments gather around these focal points, in a series of basic arpeggios. There is barely a tune, barely an idea, except for the swell and the pitch obsessions; starting with the insanely rapturous climax, there is an E-flat held constantly in one instrument or another for about three minutes, even when the harmonies desperately rub against it.6 There is so much in Grimes that you can learn about in school”“clever things going on with pitch, such as how the Moonlight interlude obsesses over a pitch just a half-step below Peter’s celestial E-natural aria “Now the Great Bear.” But then it also turns out that that E was Peter Pears’s “one good note””“even at Britten’s cleverest, the sinew of emotion is always just below the surface. The idea that a composer could create such an extreme emotional situation out of such a controlled and simple series of pitches was an enormous inspiration for me. The drama comes from friction and restriction, showing rather than telling.


  • Michael Greenebaum
    February 28th, 2008 at 11:14 am

    This is a tremendous and revealing commentary; thank you. I have loved and been troubled by Grimes ever since I heard the first matinee broadcast in 1948. I am troubled by Britten’s ambivalence towards the Borough; treated as a whole it is given magnificent music, but its individual members are treated with the contempt that often creeps through when Britten deals with the demotic. Your comment about the opening scene is apt, but I have often wondered whether Mrs. Sedley is necessary and why the “goodnight” scene in Act III is so gratuitously cloying.

    I shall see the matinee in a local cinema and I shall enjoy it more thanks to your commentary.


  • This is a great piece, and obviously I have never really paid enough attention to Grimes and will do so in the future. Right now though, you’ve just made me remember that I have all of BB’s string quartets lurking on my music drive – thank you!

  • Excellent piece. Seems I’m turned on to something new every time I visit your site. It’s a great pleasure.

  • Wow! Fascinating piece. The Met HD video theatre broadcast will be my first Peter Grimes, but first I’m off to buy the Britten/Pears recording tomorrow. I have the Vickers DVD, but I’m not sure I want his particular take on the role to be my first exposure.

    Suddenly you’re all over the place! That’s great. After reading the New Yorker piece on you and listening to some of your music online, I was happily excited to stumble onto this Grimes article on the Met website. And was surprised to learn you’d done some arrangements for Rufus Wainwright’s “Release the Stars”; I’m off to see him solo in Monterey next weekend. Attention Margaret Juntwait, we want to hear Nico, Rufus and Alex Ross together on a Met Intermission Panel!
    I’m looking forward to more of your music and writing.

  • Yes, but real men prefer Billy Budd.

  • And real fairies prefer “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Actually, I love all of Britten’s operas, and they are way better live than on recordings, the mark of a really great opera composer.

    @Steve: Definitely get the Britten/Pears recording. It’s about as definitive as recordings come. But then do check out the Jon Vickers performance on DVD. I had the good luck to encounter “Peter Grimes” for the first time at the San Francisco Opera in 1976, with Vickers singing. It’s one of the greatest performances in operatic history. His rendition of “The Great Pleiades” was so heart-rending that the entire audience was wiped out, and we hadn’t even gotten through Act One. I hope the Met does the opera justice, though in truth they don’t have a very good track record with Britten.

  • The Jon Vickers/Colin Davis recording is still easily found on cd as well. No one comes close to Vickers, I think, for revealing what Nico called the sinew of emotion in this great work.