Listening to Britten – Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Op.33b

Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Passacaglia from Peter Grimes for orchestra, Op.33b (June – July 1945, Britten aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 7′

Audio clip

A clip from the recording made by the Royal Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca.

Background and Critical Reception

As with the Four Sea Interludes, Britten was able to take this extract from Peter Grimes and rework it very slightly for performance away from the opera. Here all that was required was a slight change to the ending.


The Passacaglia from Peter Grimes is a much lesser known extract from the opera than the Four Sea Interludes. It is occasionally performed or recorded with them, but is very rarely heard alone. This is probably because the four interludes make a very satisfying whole, and the Passacaglia is a bit bigger structurally.

It is an extremely powerful utterance, taking its slow tread from the theme that we hear in the opera from the baying mob of The Borough, when they are proclaiming on Sunday morning that ‘Grimes is at his exercise!’ (meaning he is up to no good)

The music drives powerfully and ominously forwards under a dark cloud, the events leading up to it suggesting that tragedy is brewing – which it inevitably is. Britten keeps the tension high throughout, the strict confines of the passacaglia ensuring there is no let up, until the worrisome tone of the celesta appears at the top end. By the end the listener could be rather a nervous wreck! Britten often chose to use a passacaglia when his music was at its deepest and darkest, and here it came up trumps for him once again.

Recordings used

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn (EMI)
Ulster Orchestra / Vernon Handley (Chandos)

Previn’s brass snarl towards the end of the Passacaglia, and his celesta is truly chilling. Britten carries the authentic stamp, and his version has the biggest sense of dread. Vernon Handley’s is also a very fine version. All three complement recordings of the Four Sea Interludes.


By clicking on this playlist link you can access all the versions listed above.

Also written in 1945: Korngold – Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35

Next up: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35

This entry was posted in Listening to Britten, Opera, Orchestral, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Op.33b

  1. Joseph says:

    Britten seemed to be consistantly using this form as a canvas for ponderous, and often darker, themes, refining the grief each time, from his violin concerto to the last movement of his third string quartet. This passacaglia is especially shattering after the poignancy of the women’s ensemble, “Do we smile or do we weep”.

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