Peter Grimes

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Poetry & Opera

Operas by Benjamin Britten

Paul Bunyan (1941)
Peter Grimes (1945)
The Rape of Lucretia (1946)
Albert Herring (1947)
Billy Budd (1951)
Gloriana (1953)
The Turn of the Screw (1954)
Noye's Fludde (1958)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960)
Curlew River (1964)
The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966)
The Prodigal Son (1968)
Owen Wingrave (1971)
Death in Venice (1973)

Peter Grimes is an opera by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from the Peter Grimes section of George Crabbe's poem The Borough.

It was first performed at Sadler's Wells in London on June 7, 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall. It was the first of Britten's operas to be a critical and popular success. It is still widely performed, both in the UK and internationally and is considered part of the standard repertoire. In addition, the "Four Sea Interludes" were published separately and are frequently performed as an orchestral suite.


Character Voice part Original cast
Peter Grimes, a fisherman tenor Peter Pears
Ellen Orford, a widow, Borough schoolmistress soprano Joan Cross
Auntie, landlady of The Boar contralto Edith Coates
Niece 1 soprano Blanche Turner
Niece 2 soprano Minnia Bower
Balstrode, retired merchant skipper baritone Roderick Jones
Mrs. (Nabob) Sedley, a rentier widow mezzo-soprano Valetta Iacopi
Swallow, a lawyer bass Owen Brannigan
Ned Keene, apothecary and quack baritone Edmund Donlevy
Bob Boles, fisherman and Methodist tenor Morgan Jones
Rev. Horace Adams, the rector tenor Tom Culbert
Hobson, the carrier bass Frank Vaughan
John, Grimes' apprentice silent role Leonard Thompson


Britten and his partner Peter Pears read the poem by Crabbe and were struck by it. They both had a strong hand in drafting the story, and in this process the character of Grimes became far more complex. Rather than being the clear-cut villain he is in Crabbe's version, he became a victim of both cruel fate and society, while retaining darker aspects in his character. It is left to the audience to decide which version is more true, and to see how clear-cut or ambiguous the various characters are.

Pears was certainly the intended Peter Grimes, and it is likely that Britten wrote the role of Ellen Orford for Joan Cross. The work has been called "a powerful allegory of homosexual oppression," but the composer's own summation of the work was simpler: "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" (from a 1948 interview to Time magazine).

Though in the original version of the libretto Grimes' relations with the boys were clearly pederastic, Pears persuaded Slater to cut out most of the pederasty from the final version. The opera was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and is "dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky", wife of the Russian-born American conductor Serge Koussevitzky.


The "Borough," a fictional village, which shares some similarities with Crabbe's, and later Britten's, own home Aldeburgh, on England's east coast, around 1830.



Peter Grimes is questioned at an inquest over the death of his apprentice. The townsfolk, all present, make it clear they think Grimes guilty and deserving of punishment. Although the coroner, Mr. Swallow, determines the boy's death to be accidental and clears Grimes without a proper trial, he advises Grimes not to get another apprentice. As the court is cleared, Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress, attempts to comfort Grimes as he rages against what he sees as the Borough community's unwillingness to give him a true second chance.

Act I

The chorus, who constitute "the Borough," sing of their weary daily round and their relationship with the sea and the seasons. Grimes claims to be in desperate need of help to fish, and his friend, the apothecary Ned Keene, finds him a new apprentice from the workhouse. Nobody will volunteer to fetch the boy, until Ellen (whom Grimes wishes to marry) offers.

When Ellen brings the apprentice to Grimes at the pub that evening, he immediately sets off to his hut, despite the fact that the Borough is weathering an ominous storm.

Act II

On Sunday morning while most of the Borough is at church, Ellen talks with John, the apprentice. She is horrified when she finds a bruise on his neck. When she confronts Grimes about it, he brusquely claims that it was an accident. Growing agitated at her mounting concern and interference, he strikes her and runs off with the boy. This did not go unseen: first Keene, Auntie, and Bob Boles, then the chorus generally evolve into a mob to investigate Grimes's hut. As the men march off, Ellen, Auntie, and the nieces sing sadly of the relationship of women with men.

At the hut, Grimes accuses the, as always, silent John of "telling stories" then becomes lost in his memories of the dead apprentice, reliving the boy's death of thirst. When he hears the mob of villagers approaching he quickly comes back to reality and gets ready to set out to sea: he tells John to be careful climbing down to his boat, but to no avail: the boy falls to his death. When the mob reaches the hut Grimes is gone, and they find nothing out of order, so disperse.


Nighttime in the Borough. While a dance is going on, Mrs. Sedley tries to convince the authorities that Grimes is a murderer, but to no avail. Ellen and Captain Balstrode confide in each other: Grimes has returned after many days at sea, and Balstrode has discovered a jersey washed ashore: a jersey that Ellen recognizes as one she had knitted for John. Mrs. Sedley overhears this, and with the knowledge that Grimes has returned, she is able to instigate another mob. Singing "Him who despises us we'll destroy," the villagers go off in search of Grimes.

While the chorus can be heard searching for him, Grimes appears onstage, singing a long monologue: John's death has seemingly pushed Grimes, already dangerously unstable, over the edge. Ellen and Balstrode find him, and the old captain encourages Grimes to take his boat out to sea and sink it. Grimes leaves. The next morning, the Borough begins its day anew. There is a report from the coast guard of a ship sinking off the coast. This is dismissed by Auntie as "one of these rumours."

Discography and videography

In 1958, Britten led the first complete commercial recording of Peter Grimes for Decca, featuring Peter Pears (Peter Grimes), Claire Watson (Ellen Orford), James Pease (Balstrode), Jean Watson (Auntie), Geraint Evans (Ned Keene), Lauris Elms (Mrs Sedley), Owen Brannigan (Swallow), Raymond Nilsson (Bob Boles), Marion Studholme (First Niece), Iris Kells (Second Niece), Marcus Norman (John, the apprentice), John Lanigan (Rev Horace Adams), and David Kelly (Hobson). The composer himself conducted the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Other commercial recordings include these, with conductors and selected cast members:

  • Philips: Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Jon Vickers (Peter Grimes), Heather Harper (Ellen Orford), Jonathan Summers (Balstrode), Elizabeth Bainbridge (Auntie), Thomas Allen (Ned Keene), Patricia Payne (Mrs Sedley), John Dobson (Bob Boles), Forbes Robinson (Swallow), Teresa Cahill (First Niece), Anne Pashley (Second Niece), John Lanigan (Rev Horace Adams), Richard van Allan (Hobson); Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
  • EMI Classics: Bernard Haitink, conductor; Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Peter Grimes), Felicity Lott (Ellen Orford), Thomas Allen (Balstrode), Sarah Walker (Mrs Sedley), Patricia Payne (Auntie), Maria Bovino and Gillian Webster (Nieces), Simon Keenlyside (Ned Keene), Stafford Dean (Swallow), Stuart Kale (Bob Boles), Neil Jenkins (Rev Horace Adams), David Wilson-Johnson (Hobson); Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
  • Chandos: Richard Hickox, conductor; Philip Langridge (Peter Grimes), Janice Watson (Ellen Orford), Alan Opie (Balstrode), Roderick Williams (Ned Keene); City of London Sinfonia, London Symphony Chorus, and Opera London
  • LSO Live: Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Glenn Winslade (Peter Grimes), Janice Watson (Ellen Orford), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Balstrode), Jill Grove (Auntie), Nathan Gunn (Ned Keene), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Sedley), James Rutherford (Swallow), Christopher Gillett (Bob Boles), Sally Matthews (First Niece), Alison Buchanan (Second Niece), Ryland Davies (Rev Horace Adams), Jonathan Lemalu (Hobson); London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus

A historical recording of Reginald Goodall conducting Peter Pears and Joan Cross in excerpts has also been issued.

Two video recordings of Peter Grimes have been produced:

  • Kultur (1981): Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Jon Vickers (Peter Grimes), Heather Harper (Ellen Orford), Norman Bailey (Balstrode); Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
  • Kulture (1994): David Atherton, conductor; Philip Langridge (Peter Grimes), Janice Cairns (Ellen Orford), Alan Opie (Balstrode), Ann Howard (Auntie); Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera
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