Britten Explains How Peter Grimes Rejects the Wagnerian theory of "permanent melody"

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 22 November 2013 | 9:04:00 pm

Britten's introduction to Peter Grimes
The composer wrote this introduction to his opera prior to its first performance at London's Sadler's Wells in 1945.

I am especially interested in the general architectural and formal problems of opera, and decided to reject the Wagnerian theory of "permanent melody" for the classical practice of separate numbers that crystallize and hold the emotion of a dramatic situation at chosen moments.

During the summer of 1941, while working in California, I came across a copy of The Listener containing an article about George Crabbe by E.M. Forster. I did not know any of the poems of Crabbe at that time, but reading about him gave such a feeling of nostalgia for Suffolk, where I have always lived, that I searched for a copy of his works, and made a beginning with The Borough.

[ … ]: It is easy to see how [Mr Forster's] excellent account of this "entirely English poet" evoked a longing for the realities of that grim and exciting seacoast around Aldeburgh.

Earlier in the year, I had written the music of Paul Bunyan, an operetta to a text by W.H. Auden, which was performed for a week at Columbia University, New York. The critics damned it unmercifully, but the public seemed to find something enjoyable in the performances. Despite the criticisms, I wanted to write some more works for the stage. The Borough - and particularly the story of Peter Grimes - provided a subject and a background from which Peter Pears and I began trying to construct the scenario of an opera. A few months later I was waiting on the East Coast for a passage back to England, when a performance of my Sinfonia da Requiem was given in Boston under Serge Koussevitsky [sic]. He asked why I had not written an opera. I explained that the construction of a scenario, discussions with a librettist, planning the musical architecture, composing preliminary sketches, and writing nearly a thousand pages of orchestra score, demanded a freedom from other work which was an economic impossibility for most young composers. Koussevitsky was interested in my project for an opera based on Crabbe, although I did not expect to have the opportunity of writing it for several years. Some weeks later we met again, when he told me that he had arranged for the commissioning of the opera, which was to be dedicated to the memory of his wife, who had recently died. On arrival in this country in April 1942 I outlined the rough plan to Montagu Slater, and asked him to undertake the libretto. Discussions, revisions, and corrections took nearly eighteen months. In January 1944 I began composing the music, and the score was completed in February 1945.