Listening to Britten – Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op.33a


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes for orchestra, Op.33a (Spring 1945, Britten aged 30)

1 Dawn
2 Sunday Morning
3 Moonlight
4 Storm

Dedication unknown
Duration 17′

Audio clips

Clips from the opera’s first recording, with the Royal Opera House Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. With thanks to Decca.

1. Dawn

2. Sunday morning

3. Moonlight

4. Storm

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s resourcefulness is made clear in this suite of orchestral interludes from Peter Grimes, for in their own right they have become even more popular than the whole opera itself. All Britten had to do was to change the endings slightly and they were ready for concert performance.

To make a more satisfying short-term whole the order is changed slightly. In the opera the interludes appear in the order On The Beach (here renamed as Dawn) – StormSunday MorningEvening (renamed as Moonlight). In the new format Britten almost presents a day in the life of the sea at Aldeburgh, and the piece can be enjoyed as such, independently of the opera.

Of course, though, the piece is indelibly linked to the plot of Peter Grimes, and in fact contains nearly all of Britten’s descriptive aides to the plot. It also highlights just how big a role the sea itself plays in the opera. It is arguably the main character, responsible for all those of The Borough even being where they are, and in the final pages of the opera lays claim to Grimes himself.

Sometimes the interludes are performed with thePassacaglia of Act 2, but more often than not they stand as a quartet.
As John Bridcut says, ‘if you’re a newcomer to Britten, there is nowhere better to begin than here, but the Sea Interludes are not cheap cuts. You will find they haunt you for the rest of your life’.

Thoughts

The Four Sea Interludes are the closest thing imaginable to a postcard from Aldeburgh, albeit one with much more emotional depth than normal! Britten’s evocation of the Suffolk coast, in all its seasonal variations and contrasting light throughout the day, has no equal. Only a few seconds of music are required for the listener to be transported to the coastline and feel the spray on their face, the wind in their hair.

It is in effect a culmination of Britten’s powers of orchestral description up to this point. The opening unison melody of Dawn evokes the cries of birds, while the responding clarinets, violas and harp picture either the waves lapping at the shore or birds wheeling away from the reeds, depending on the view of your inner ear. The mysterious atmosphere is powerful and lasting.

Yet to focus on the first interlude alone would detract from the sharply focussed pictures elsewhere. Storm rages on the edge of insanity, representing not just the tempest at sea but the moments in Peter Grimes’ mind where he is furthest from calm. Sunday Morning is remarkable too, the glint of the sun on the waves achieved through a brilliance of orchestration and melodic movement that brings Stravinsky to mind, as well as Britten’s study of Balinese music with Colin McPhee.

Britten grows ever stronger as a composer in nocturnal scenes, and Moonlight captures the waves moving slowly but ceaselessly in a near-perfect blend of romance and regret, the latter expressing the newly tragic plight in which Grimes finds himself. The concert ending is fire and brimstone, the Storm collapsing in a heap like an overrun sea wall.
As a concert suite the Four Sea Interludes work perfectly, a series of detailed pictures that introduce both the opera and its composer. If this is indeed your first listen to Britten, you will know at this point if there is going to be more!

Recordings used

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, Eduard van Beinum (Eloquence)
London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn (EMI)
Ulster Orchestra / Vernon Handley (Chandos)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Constantin Silvestri (BBC Legends)
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein (Deutsche Grammophon)

Britten’s own recording presents the best possible portrait of the coast, and is incredibly well played into the bargain, but there are other more modern versions that do a very good job too. André Previn conducts an excellent version from the London Symphony Orchestra, full of drama in Storm but also finding the eerie atmosphere of Dawn.

Perhaps the best of the modern versions, though, is led by the much missed Vernon Handley, who conducts the Ulster Orchestra in a recording where you can more or less feel the spray! Richard Hickox is of similar ilk, his understanding of Britten’s world clear for the listener to hear. Moonlight is where his interpretation really shines.

A number of conductors chose to dip in to Britten for the Four Sea Interludes and little more. Leonard Bernstein was one, and indeed this was his last ever recording; his Moonlight is very slow indeed but very expressive too. Constantin Silvestri was another, and his version on BBC Legends with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is worth seeking out for something a little different, despite a lot of extraneous audience noise. His Sunday Morning sounds like pure Stravinsky, while the Storm brings out a sharp parallel with Mars from Holst’s The Planets.

Finally Eduard van Beinum conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the first recorded version of the interludes, enjoying exceptional sound considering it was recorded in 1953, and enjoying both Britten’s colourful orchestration and the profusion of melodies. His Storm is on the edge of the abyss, a disturbing experience indeed.

Spotify

By clicking on this playlist link you can access all the versions listed above, in the order in which they are listed.

Also written in 1945: Messiaen – Harawi

Next up: Turn then thine eyes

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One Response to Listening to Britten – Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op.33a

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Op.33b | Good Morning Britten

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