Why Britten still makes waves

As the LSO celebrates its centenary with a concert performance of Peter Grimes, Bayan Northcott analyses the appeal of a seafaring opera that has been decried as naive - and even drew dismissive comments from its composer
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In the spring of 1904, a large group of freelance players, goaded by a managerial ultimatum, walked out of the Queen's Hall Orchestra and set up their own self-governing outfit. And over the 100 years since then, the London Symphony Orchestra has probably given more prestigious first performances than any other in Britain, save the BBC Symphony Orchestra founded 26 years later.

Next Saturday's inaugural concert of the Centenary Season could easily have opened with Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings - the orchestra's first premiere in 1905 - gone on with The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946) by Britten or Tippett's Concerto for Orchestra (1963), and finished either with The Planets (1920) of Holst or Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1932) - all of them launched in one way or another by the LSO. Instead, the orchestra's current Chief Conductor, Sir Colin Davis, has chosen to programme an opera with which the LSO has never been particularly associated.

Granted, the presentation of entire operas in concert form has latterly become something of a fashion. Quite why might be debated. Could it even be a covert ruse to reclaim the music from the more interventionist trends in theatrical production? Yet, precisely located as its libretto is in place and, to a lesser extent, time, Britten's Peter Grimes has mostly escaped radical tamperings over the decades. And while the sonorous imagery of the Four Sea Interludes drawn from the score has always made a vivid impact in the concert hall, there remains much in the opera that really needs the theatre. It is difficult to achieve the equivalent effect of Grimes's demented ravings on his fog-bound East coast shingle, when the singer is surround by an all-too visible 80-piece symphony orchestra.

Maybe the reason for this choice is something else. If one were looking for a single event to epitomise the progress of British music over the century of the LSO's existence, it would be hard to challenge the impact of the Sadler's Wells premiere of Peter Grimes on 7 June 1945. Not only did its triumph demonstrate once and for all the viability of modern opera in English and launch the career of the mid-century's most lastingly successful opera composer at a stroke, but it seemed to signal a major shift in British culture: the point at which the old order of connoisseurs and amateurs, patrons and impresarios, mitigated only by the public service remit of the fledgling BBC, gave way to the post-war Labour vision of welfare, education, public subsidy and Art for the People.

Yet the triumph of Grimes was, in many ways, an unlikely one. An opera about a visionary misfit with brutal tendencies driven to suicide by a vengeful community, would hardly seem an obvious popular draw in that summer of post-war euphoria. Furthermore, it was mounted by a near-mutinous company, ground down by years of provincial touring and internal dissent. Most piquant of all, it comprised the collaboration of a composer and his lead tenor who had not only got through the war as certified conchies but were darkly rumoured to be lovers as well. And what of the work itself: the first grand opera, after all, of a still-young composer with limited theatrical experience. In later years, after many further operas, Britten himself was known to deprecate Grimes as "full of howlers".

In reality, it exemplifies how opera, of all performing genres, in some deep sense needs to be flawed, needs to harbour rifts and inconsistencies of concept and realization, if it is lastingly to tantalize, to invite ever new interpretations. Britten was in California in 1941, attempting to build a new American career, when he happened upon an article by EM Forster about the poetry of George Crabbe, which filled him with such longing for his native East Suffolk that he knew he had to go home - though well aware of the opprobrium he and Peter Pears would face as pacifists in the middle of a supposedly just war.

Indeed, this was doubtless why they chose Crabbe's "Peter Grimes" when Koussevitszky opportunely offered an operatic commission. For while the protagonist of the poem is an unmitigated sadist, the communal violence he arouses evidently touched on their own deepest minority fears. Their initial sketch scenario was, in fact, fairly explicit in depicting Grimes' love-hatred for his apprentices, but got toned down in Montague Slater's actual libretto in the interests of universalising the individual-against-the crowd theme and giving Grimes himself a more human and poetic dimension. Not every commentator has felt the resulting character quite adds up.

Meanwhile, back home, Britten was putting himself through an intensive operatic education, often sitting in on the Sadler's Wells Company in which Pears was now appearing. Not coincidentally, the libretto managed to incorporate a whole gamut of traditional operatic schemata: there is a court scene, a storm scene, a scene played out against an offstage religious service, another counterpointed by a sequence of dances, and, near the end, that most sure-fire of devices - a mad scene. Part of the fascination of Grimes is to hear how Britten renews procedures that were already standard at the time of Donizetti.

But it goes further than that. As an admirer of Berg, Britten was bound to learn from the structure and characterization of Wozzeck. In variously evoking his crowd of townsfolk, he doubtless remembered Wagner's Die Meistersinger which had thrilled him in Vienna in 1934, and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess seen in the US (the latter also contains an interior scene in which a door is recurrently opened on a raging storm outside). And during a bout of flu he closely studied a score of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, with audible effect on the poignant women's quartet at the centre of his second act. It is scarcely an exaggeration to suggest that, beneath its ostensible drama, Peter Grimes is as much an opera about writing an opera.

Given the multiple implications, public and private, of its dramatic material, given the vastly various influences absorbed into its structure and music, given its range of sonorous and picturesque imagery and its manifold, at least partly deliberate commerce with the social and historical moment in which it appeared, Grimes might well have proved an overloaded mess. But this would be to reckon without Britten's innate sense of musico-dramatic pacing. Just as the complexity of Wozzeck was proportionate to its relative brevity, so Britten seems to have realized that filling the full-length time spans of Grimes required a relative simplification of texture and incident.

Large sections of the work are articulated by straightforward strophic or refrain forms, underpinned by unchanging harmonies or repeat patterns; while a high string line, some clarinet arpeggios and a few menacing brass chords are all it takes to evoke the expanses of the North Sea. This instinct for leaving pauses in the information, spaces between the notes, in which the sonorous, verbal and visual implications of the material can, as it were, collect, interact and vibrate in the mind of the perceiver, is perhaps the key to Britten's genius as a musical dramatist and setter of words.

There is no doubt that determined criticism will still find plenty that is inconsistent, naive or old-fashioned in the work, and sometime in the Forties, when the two composers were at their closest, Britten himself said to Tippett: "Look, I'm probably an anachronism. I am an opera composer. I can't help it, even if it's an anachronism in this century." Yet, as it continues to circulate round the opera houses - not to say, concert halls - of the world, Peter Grimes seems less operatically anachronistic, more psycho-socially relevant, than ever.

The LSO presents 'Peter Grimes' in concert at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550) on Saturday and next Monday at 7pm (broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 14 January at 7.30pm