March – Interlude IV (Passacaglia) from Peter Grimes
Earlier today I talked about how I associate the month of March with a kind of lack of reliability when it comes to the weather. This is also the theme for my choice in the “musical year” category (I’m still thinking about re-naming that category. It makes me envision year-long renditions of Les Miserables and Cats. Ugh.), which is “Interlude IV – passacaglia” from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, an opera that I always imagine to be taking place in March, because March is such a stormy month, and there’s much talk of storms in this opera.
“Who can turn skies back/and begin again?” – storm as a force of nature plays an important part in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.
The main theme of Peter Grimes is the helplessness of man against Nature: The population of the borough is painfully aware, constantly, of the raging of the elements and their own insignificance in contrast. “Oh tide that waits for no man, spare our coasts!”, so goes one of the choruses in the opera, and each of the inhabitants of the town has his or her own way of dealing with the helplessness. Bob Boles turns to the fanatic religious (“Repent! Repent!” he shouts ad nauseam to his fellow men during storms), Mrs. Sedley takes to drug abuse, Ned Keene runs a drug-dealing business, and almost all the men seek comfort from time to time in the prostituted arms of Auntie’s euphemistic nieces. And when all these pass-times aren’t enough, they turn to the scapegoat, who just happens to be the fanciful loner Peter Grimes.
Interlude IV musically sums up these themes so movingly, I think: It starts off with a sense of loneliness and isolation depicted through a very quiet version of the conspiratorial chorus “Grimes is at his exercise!” (which marks the climax of the borough’s rising suspicion against Peter Grimes) with a single cello as the predominant instrument, backed up only by a contrabass, which sort of trails off and is overpowered by animated, forte brass players who imitate to perfection the merciless blows of a storm (I regret that I was unable to find a soundfile of this particular part of the interlude), which in turn slide into an almost manic-harking performance by high-strung strings and eventually intwines with the slandered Peter Grimes frustrated, tyrannic out-let at his young apprentice: “Go there!”. I think it’s a most beautiful piece of music, and it illustrates perfectly what I like so much about Benjamin Britten – his attentive depiction of atmospheres. Another example of this, from the same opera, may be seen here:
This is Jon Vickers, probably the most famous portrayer of Peter Grimes, in Peter Grimes “madness”-scene. The borough really is shouting “Grimes!” in the distance at this point in the opera, but as depicted through Britten’s music, in Peter Grimes’s plagued and deranged mind their angry shouts become ghostly moaning, creating a very powerful eerie atmosphere that is backed up by the shrill violins at the beginning of the scene. “Ghosts” is the keyword here, Peter Grimes’s life has become defined by the dead, by the corpses of the little boys that he is accused of murdering, and he dreams in vain of “[turning] the skies back/and begin again.” Absolutely unnerving, but brilliantly so. Peter Grimes remains one of my favourite operas.
We really have had a lot of storms in Denmark this March, and I hope we’re through with it by now. I agree with Benjamin Britten’s depiction of our mortality through the raging of the elements, but that doesn’t mean that I find it to be particularly pleasant. 😉