Who was the real Peter Grimes?

Paedophile, homosexual, sadist, a metaphor for Nazi Germany - he's been called many things, says Tom Rosenthal. But what are the true origins of Benjamin Britten's greatest operatic creation?

The conception, gestation and birth of an opera do not necessarily follow a human time span; nor is the paternity as unambiguous as it is among animals. We know that Benjamin Britten composed Peter Grimes, with a libretto by Montagu Slater, based on George Crabbe's poem The Borough and that its first performances in June 1945 at Sadler's Wells theatre in London established Britten as the first major English operatic composer since Purcell and, if we accept him as a Briton, Handel. In the nearly 60 years since then, Grimes - the story of a tortured fisherman hunted to death by a hostile community - has become the only internationally recognised operatic masterpiece of the post-war period, the most performed, in the most countries, and, justly, the most lauded.

Yet there is a strong case to be made that the "onlie begetter" is EM Forster. In 1941 Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, were both committed pacifists and conscientious objectors, far from England at war and living in America. While staying with friends in Southern California, they came across a back number of that wonderful, but now alas defunct, intellectual weekly The Listener, containing the script of a radio talk by Forster. Britten wrote immediately on 29 July 1941 to his friend Elizabeth Mayer: "We've just discovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited - maybe an opera one day....!!" The seed so eloquently planted by Forster, who later became a friend of Britten and co-wrote the libretto for his later opera Billy Budd, took nearly four years to come to fruition but there is a nice irony in this passionate adherent of Suffolk and, eventually, Aldeburgh's most distinguished resident, discovering Crabbe only by a happy accident.

Crabbe's poem The Borough is a set of unforgettable character sketches, entitled "Letters", devoted to the principal citizens of what he calls "The Borough" but which is in fact the fishing town of Aldeburgh, not all that far from Lowestoft where Britten's father laboured two centuries later as a dentist and Mrs Britten dreamt of her composer son as "the fourth B" after Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. (Mrs B clearly had no time for Bartók, Bruckner, Bruch or even Ben's first mentor and teacher, Frank Bridge, and had apparently not heard of Berlioz.)

Crabbe was a notable character. Born in 1754, he trained as an apothecary and became the parish doctor of Aldeburgh. Apart from The Borough, he wrote a long poem called Inebriety in 1775, devoted to the perils of the demon drink with which he was well acquainted. (He also consumed heroic quantities of laudanum.) He went to London and was a friend of Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles James Fox and other grandees, including Doctor Johnson who recommended that the impecunious poet take holy orders. This greatly improved his circumstances and he spent many years as a curate in Aldeburgh before gaining true preferment as Domestic Chaplain to the Duke of Rutland. He died in 1832.

Ronald Duncan, the poet who did the libretto for Britten's next opera The Rape of Lucretia, wrote perceptively of Crabbe: "His poems are social documents of a period, and because of his insights his portraits remain as timeless as Rembrandt's." And, one might add, as uncompromisingly frank.

Britten's - and Slater's - Grimes is a true tragic hero. A man of passion and intelligence, with a strong desire to succeed as a fisherman; a man who wants to marry the schoolmistress, the widow Mrs Ellen Orford, settle down and become respectable; a man at hopeless odds with the community who is more sinned against than sinning. He is, in short, a sanitised version of the Grimes depicted by Crabbe in 1810. In Crabbe's words:

Old Peter Grimes made Fishing his employ,

His Wife he cabin'd with him and his Boy,

And seem'd that Life laborious to enjoy:

To Town came quiet Peter with his Fish,

And had of all a civil word and wish.

He left his Trade upon the Sabbath-Day.

The trouble with that passage is that it concerns our Grimes's father who does not appear in the opera. Crabbe liked old Grimes but could not abide the son, hence his words in the Preface to The Borough: "The character of Grimes, his obduracy and apparent want of feeling, his gloomy kind of misanthropy, the progress of his madness, and the horrors of his imagination, I must leave to the judgment and observation of my readers. The mind here exhibited is one untouched by pity, unstung by remorse and uncorrected by shame."

Here is just a little of what he wrote in the poem itself:

With greedy eye he look'd on all he saw,

He knew not Justice and he laugh'd at Law;

On all he mark'd he stretch'd his ready Hand,

He fish'd by Water and he filch'd by Land:

Oft in the Night has Peter dropt his Oar,

Fled from his Boat and saught for Prey on

shore...

He wanted some obedient Boy to stand

And bear the blow of his outrageous hand;

And hop'd to find in some propitious hour

A feeling Creature subject to his Power...

But none enquir'd how Peter us'd the Rope,

Or what the Bruise, that made the Stripling

stoop;

None could the Ridges on his Back behold...

The savage Master, grin'd in horrid glee;

He'd now the power he ever lov'd to show,

A feeling Being subject to his Blow.

There is more of this. Quite enough to show that Grimes is a sadist and, by most criminal codes, guilty at least of manslaughter if not murder. There are also hints that he buggered his wretched victims. It is more or less clear, too, that he killed his father in a rage. Crabbe's Grimes dies in delirium in the poorhouse, driven into madness and death by dreadful visions of his victims, the apprentices led on to torment him by his blood-boltered father.

There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong in changing Crabbe's Grimes into Britten's Grimes. The majority of great operas based on literary works radically alter the original. An opera is not a play or a novel or a short story. To labour the obvious, it is a music drama frequently, though not always, based upon a work of art in a totally different medium. The exigencies of time and space often necessitate the excision of entire characters and whole sub-plots to convey the essence of the original in an entirely different form. From Verdi's Otello to Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades to Britten's Grimes, composer and librettist have altered, cut, reshaped and added in order to create a new masterpiece, and to cavil at lack of fidelity to an original work of genius is to miss the point. It's neither good nor bad, it's merely different and the interest is not in the whether but in the how and why.

In Britten, it's not only Grimes who undergoes a sea-change. In the opera, Ellen Orford is a youngish, saintly person, the voice of decency and compassion in a fundamentally hostile environment. In The Borough, she gets a full "Letter", in which she is revealed as a tragic figure "burthened with error and misfortune". She is a ruined woman, her teens spoiled by a stepfather with too many children who made her "nurse and wait on all the infant race", before she is seduced and abandoned, with an idiot child, by her first lover, a gentleman "much above me". Eventually she marries another man, her children die, one of them by hanging. Widowed, she opens a little school, goes blind and, more or less, starves.

As all these extracts show, one can see the wisdom of Forster's judgement that Crabbe "is not one of our great poets. But he is unusual, he is sincere, and he is entirely of his country". One can also, therefore, see why Britten and Pears - whose own input into the creation of the opera was significant - felt an empathy for Crabbe that went beyond the analysis of the town they both loved. But one also sees their need to sanitise Grimes, to turn him from out-and-out villain into a plausible dramatic hero.

One has to remember that for much of their lives as lovers, Britten and Pears (who created the role of Grimes) were, by their conduct, risking imprisonment. They saw Grimes (in an interview with Britten) as the great outsider: "A central feeling for us was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation. As conscientious objectors we were out of it. We couldn't say we suffered physically, but naturally we experienced tremendous tension. I think it was partly this feeling which led us to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is, rather than the villain he was in Crabbe." All well and good. But as that shrewd and sympathetic critic Michael Kennedy has pointed out: "Is it seriously to be doubted that 'and homosexuals' were unspoken but implied words in that statement? [After 'conscientious objectors']."

It was surely imperative that Grimes was not portrayed as homosexual. (After all, Britten did not feel able to show frankly the homosexual writer Aschenbach in Death in Venice until 1973.)

As for Grimes's sadism, that too is played down, almost concealed and only demonstrated indirectly. In the opera you never see Grimes striking his third and last boy apprentice. You only see Ellen Orford discovering his bruises. But you do get the Chorus yelling: "Grimes is at his exercise."

As for the worst aspect of Crabbe's Grimes from our contemporary standpoint - his paedophilia - there is not a hint of it in the opera. This is important, particularly because of the recent BBC television programme Britten's Children and several attendant newspaper articles. It seems clear from Britten's life and work that he loved young boys and that he created much beautiful music for them from the role of Miles in The Turn of the Screw to the many enchanting choral works for young, unbroken male voices. But with all the opportunities for contemporary exposure there is not a shred of evidence of any misconduct. David Hemmings, who sang the role of Miles in the first production of The Turn of the Screw, was warned by his father: "You know he's a homo, don't you?" But even Hemmings senior's robust homophobia did not cause him to fear pederasty and Hemmings has gone on record as saying that nothing untoward ever happened. His only gripe was that once his voice broke, in mid-aria, and he had to be replaced by another boy Britten never spoke to him again.

It is also probably significant that Britten initially preferred homosexual collaborators for his librettos. For Paul Bunyan he had Auden but his essentially controlling nature - and why, after all, should he not be in charge of his operas in all their details just as Verdi and many others had been? - was upset by the way in which Auden had presented him with a fait accompli rather than a Strauss/von Hofmannsthal-type of dialogue and collaboration. For Grimes he initially wanted Christopher Isherwood who wrote back: "It is surely good melodramatic material and may be something more than that: the setting is perfect for an opera, I should think"- but turned the project down citing pressure of other work and lack of time.

So Britten turned to the heterosexual Montagu Slater who shared his political views and, it is probably not too cynical to suggest, being less well known and successful than Auden and Isherwood, would prove more malleable as a colleague. As anyone who has studied the Verdi/Boito or Strauss/von Hofmannsthal correspondence can testify, in any final argument between composer and librettist it is the composer who - in my view rightly - always wins. It is, after all, his music that people pay to hear, not the librettist's words.

Slater lost so many of the battles that he took the unusual step of publishing his own version of his verse libretto in book form a year after the Sadler's Wells performances and, having written for the cinema, where the director almost invariably triumphs in any argument with the writer, set out in the preface his own analogy for the creative process of writing an opera: "In writing it I worked in the closest consultation with the composer, Benjamin Britten. We worked very much as a scriptwriter and director work on a film, the composer in this case being the director. The comparison has value, because for several reasons I believe it is useful at the present moment to dwell on how much there is in common between the arts of drama, opera, radio and film."

As disavowals of collaborators go that is quite tactfully expressed, but it's still pretty obvious that there was a fair amount of friction between them as there often was with Britten when he felt he was right.

When Grimes was revived and put on at Covent Garden the director was the redoubtable Tyrone Guthrie. The then staff director, Ande Anderson, recalled that: "We had a brilliant production by Tony Guthrie, but Ben didn't like it at all because the accent was thrown on the sea. Ben said: 'No, it's got nothing to do with the sea. It has to do with the people in the village'. Tony said: 'But Ben, the sea made the people what they were', and Ben replied: 'No, these people would be the same wherever they were'."

Britten, once having created Peter Grimes, could not be in charge of it in perpetuity. If a Guthrie, an acknowledged master in his own field, could earn his disapproval so could other interpreters. For many of us the defining performance of Grimes is that of the Canadian Jon Vickers who performed the role in the Sixties and Seventies. While the part may have been written, for fairly obvious reasons, for Peter Pears it was Vickers, with a voice no less distinctive than that of Pears, but of radically different timbre, who most brilliantly and movingly brought the persecuted fisherman to life. Yet he and Britten fell out badly, not because Vickers was ever anything other than a great artist, but because he would occasionally ride roughshod over the score, changing words, eliding syllables here and there, creating different emphases and Britten was justifiably furious. There is a strange irony in this in that Vickers, more than any other interpreter of the role I've heard, evoked the elements of tragedy, pity, terror and catharsis with raw, unforgettable emotional power. Yet his view of Grimes's character was quite startlingly at odds with those of his creator. In an interview Vickers claimed that Grimes is "totally symbolic" and that he, Vickers, could "play him as a Jew" or "paint his face black and put him in a white society" while at the same time maintaining that "I will not play Peter Grimes as a homosexual" because this "reduces him to a man in a situation with a problem and I'm not interested in that kind of operatic portrayal".

From its opening performances the opera attracted strong opinions. Within days, the conductor of the 38 bus travelling along Roseberry Avenue was heard to declaim, "Next stop Sadler's Wells Theatre to hear the sadistic fisherman Peter Grimes."

Joan Cross, who sang Ellen Orford at the premiere, recalled the reception at the final curtain: "At first we didn't know. There was silence at the end and then shouting broke out. The stage crew were stunned: they thought it was a demonstration. Well it was, but fortunately of the right kind."

The great American literary critic Edmund Wilson, who heard it in an early performance in 1945, thought at first that it was an opera about war and that Grimes was Germany. While there were several favourable notices from British music critics there were many dissenting voices. The editor of Music Review thought it an "opera virtually without melody" and described the music as "poverty stricken". Several used that ultimate English condemnation, "clever". Even Neville Cardus, reviewing the 1947 Covent Garden production, felt that, "Grimes is not a strong enough character, not psychologically realised. For this reason the opera cannot strike the authentic tragic note."

But there were many supporters. Philip Hope-Wallace thought it the most important operatic event since Hindemith's Mathis der Maler and was the first critic to point out the connections with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk. William Glock wrote of the Prologue that, "could Verdi have been there he would have sat back in admiration, if not always in comfort".

Perhaps the most appreciative as well as favourable student of the work was Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who noted that many people had chorused along the lines of, "At last! After so many amateurs, a professional composer of operas!" "If they are right," wrote Shawe-Taylor, "it is none too soon. With the death of Puccini and the long decrescendo of Strauss, the species looked liked becoming extinct." In fact the last internationally successful opera had been Puccini's Turandot (1926) and how interesting to think that Shawe-Taylor, for many years the doyen of music criticism in this country, ignored Janacek in his assessment. But then Janacek (who died in 1928) was more or less unknown in Britain in 1945. For Shawe-Taylor, "one can scarcely avoid seeing in Benjamin Britten a fresh hope, not only for English, but for European opera".

Edmund Wilson, once he had got over his bizarre Second World War analogy, was another staunch, and perceptive, admirer: "You feel, during the final scenes, that the indignant, shouting, trampling mob which comes to punish Peter Grimes is just as sadistic as he. And when Balstrode gets to him first and sends him out to sink himself in his boat, you feel that you are in the same boat as Grimes."

To return to the "onlie begetter" of Peter Grimes, EM Forster, it was surely fitting that at the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 - and one wonders whether it could have been so beautifully established and managed by Britten and Pears without the more or less instant success of Grimes three years earlier - a lecture was given by Forster entitled "George Crabbe and Peter Grimes". In it the novelist muses on how he might himself have effected the transposition from poem to operatic stage:

"It amuses me to think what an opera on Peter Grimes would have been like if I had written it. I should certainly have starred the murdered apprentices. I should have introduced their ghosts in the last scene, rising out of the estuary, on either side of the vengeful greybeard, blood and fire would have been thrown in the tenor's face, hell would have opened, and on a mixture of Don Juan and the Freischütz I should have lowered my final curtain. The applause that follows is for my inward ear only. For what in the actual opera have we? No ghosts, no father, no murders, no crime in Peter's part except what is caused by the far greater crimes committed against him by society. He is the misunderstood Byronic hero. In a properly constituted community he would be happy, but he is too far ahead of his surroundings, and his fate is to drift out in his boat, a private Viking, and to perish unnoticed while work-a-day life is resumed. He is an interesting person, he is a bundle of musical possibilities, but he is not the Peter Grimes of Crabbe."

A new production of Peter Grimes - which I have seen in its Brussels staging - opens at Covent Garden next week. The director Willy Decker has certainly emphasised the outsider elements. Decker is not supervising the London version; that is in the hands of his assistant director François de Carpentries, with whom I discussed Decker's interpretation. When I asked whether, when Grimes appears in the Prologue before Lawyer Swallow's inquest on his dead second apprentice, we are to assume that the heavy coffin Grimes bears is meant to contain the boy's corpse, he agreed that this was so. He demurred at the idea that it was also to recall images of Christ carrying his cross, but said that it was a symbol of Grimes's feelings of guilt. He also confirmed that for this production Decker has delved deeply into Crabbe as well as Britten. However, he stated that there was not meant to be any indication of sexual abuse in the marvellously directed scene between Grimes and the new boy apprentice in Grimes's hut. Only fear and the uncertainty caused by that fear are manifested by the boy.

When I asked about what is, for me, the most startling aspect of the production, the scene in which Balstrode (the sea captain) and Ellen Orford, Grimes's only loyal supporters in the Borough, join their fellow citizens in the final chorus after Grimes had drowned himself, de Carpentries said that this was to indicate their wish to stay alive as part of the community. They did not join in the hunting and the destruction of Grimes but they do need to survive.

Perhaps all that this shows in this extraordinary, emotionally shattering opera, is that no matter how much Britten has altered Crabbe's original, no matter how hard and successfully he has laboured to create a tragic hero, Crabbe's view of this dysfunctional fisherman is too deeply ingrained ever to disappear entirely.

'Peter Grimes': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), Saturday to 16 July

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