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11 - Choice and Inevitability: The Moral Economy of Peter Grimes

from Part II - Studies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 July 2019

Philip Ross Bullock
Affiliation:
Professor of Russian Literature and Music at the University of Oxford, and Fellow and Tutor in Russian at Wadham College.
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Summary

It has been widely asserted and accepted that Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes (1945) has little in common with its source text, the twenty-second chapter of George Crabbe's The Borough: A Poem, in Twenty-Four Letters (1810). As early as 1945 the libretto published to coincide with the first run of performances at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London contained a disclaimer about the nature of the relationship between the original literary text and its subsequent operatic adaptation:

The opera is derived from George Crabbe's poem, ‘The Borough,’ inasmuch as the story and many of the characters are to be found in Crabbe, but what Crabbe sketches broadly has, of course, been elaborated in the libretto. Textually the libretto bears practically no relation to Crabbe, the only quotations being part of the first and all of the final chorus.

That same year, in a volume of essays about the opera, its librettist, Montagu Slater, was yet more explicit about the lack of correspondence between the two works:

I ought to add in fairness to Crabbe that the story as worked out in the opera uses Crabbe's poem only as a starting-point. Crabbe produced character sketches of some of the main persons of the drama. I have taken these character sketches as clues and woven them into a story against the background of the Borough: but it is my story and the composer's (the idea was originally not mine but Britten's), and I have to take the responsibility for its shape as well as its words. I can't blame Crabbe!

This point was reiterated in a lecture given at the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 by none other than E. M. Forster, whose 1941 radio broadcast on Crabbe (subsequently published in The Listener) had provided the original inspiration for Britten's opera:

Now since it [the opera] bears the same title as the poem people often assume that is it Crabbe set to music. This is not the case. The opera diverges widely from its original, and it is interesting to examine the changes which the composer and his librettist, Mr. Montagu Slater, have thought fit to make. They had every right to make them.

Type
Chapter
Information
Literary Britten
words and music in benjamin britten's vocal works the boydell
, pp. 223 - 242
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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