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Benjamin Britten

Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten - Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes, first produced in 1945, is the second of Britten’s (Benjamin Britten 1913-1976) eight operas, the others being Paul Bunyan (1941), The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), Let’s Make an Opera (1949), Billy Bu (1951), Gloriana (1953), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960). All, with the exception of the first, were received with at least a good measure of critical acclaim, but none of them, with the possible exception of the children’s Let’s Make an Opera, seems to stand much chance of frequent revival. Peter Grimes is the one that had the widest international acceptance in its first years, being produced all over Europe, and in North and South America.

It was commissioned for Tanglewood by the Koussevitzky Foundation, and it was hailed, by some critics, as the finest English opera since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Its fine orchestral interludes and preludes are still sometimes played at concerts; yet it has not kept the stage in its entirety. One can only guess at the reason. It is a masterly piece of writing, but it is difficult to take warmly to one’s heart. One reason may be its sombre, rather repellent subject matter; another may be the involved, almost tortured language of the libretto, which is based on George Crabbe's thoughtful and compassionate series of poetic letters descriptive of life in his native Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Whatever its faults, it remains one of the most interesting of modem operas in terms of the musico-dramatic problems it seeks to solve.




Opera in prologue and three acts by Benjamin Britten
with libretto in English by Montagu Slater
based on the narrative poem “The Borough” by George Crabbe.



Peter Grimes, a fisherman
Ellen Orford, a widow, Borough schoolmistress
Auntie, landlady of The Boar
Niece 1  
Niece 2    
retired merchant skipper
Mrs. (Nabob) Sedley, a rentier widow 
Swallow, a lawyer
Ned Keene, apothecary and quack 
Bob Boles, fisherman and Methodist  
Rev. Horace Adams, the rector 
Hobson, the carrier 
John, Grimes' apprentice



Time: before 1830

Place: The Borough, a small fishing town on the East Coast
First performance in London, June 7, 1945



Peter Grimes:

Tenor. A fisherman. His Apprentice has died—the second one to do so—and the townsfolk are suspicious of his part in this, despite the inquest verdict of ‘accidental circumstances’. He insists on having a new Apprentice, even though he has been advised by the court to manage without one in future. Grimes's only real friends are the widowed schoolmistress Ellen Orford, whom he hopes to marry, and the retired Capt. Balstrode. The rest of the Borough mistrust and dislike him—Grimes is something of a loner and does not easily socialize. His only wish is to earn lots of money as a fisherman so that he can afford to marry Ellen. He notices shoals of fish in the sea (‘the whole sea's boiling’) and is determined to net them, despite bad weather and the risks involved and orders his new apprentice, John, to change and get ready to sail. When John accidentally falls to his death from their cliff‐top hut, the townsfolk march to find Grimes. Only Ellen and Balstrode believe him, but they also realize that the townsfolk are baying for his blood and there is no way of saving him. Balstrode advises him to take his boat out to sea and sink it and, watched by Ellen, helps him push it out. Arias: What harbour shelters peace?; Now the Great Bear and Pleiades; In dreams I've built myself some kindlier home. Several excellent British singers have taken up this role, but also tenors from the other side of the Atlantic. These have included Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Anthony Roden, Jeffrey Lawton, Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, the Canadian Jon Vickers, the Americans Ben Heppner and Anthony Dean Griffey, and not forgetting the Australian Ronald Dowd. Created (1945) by Peter Pears. See also article by Michael Kennedy.

Ellen Orford:
Soprano. A widow and the Borough school mistress. She hopes to marry Grimes and tries to defend him against the Borough. When he decides to go against advice and take another apprentice, and the carrier, Hobson, is reluctant to fetch the boy for him, Ellen offers to go with Hobson, thus calming everyone down. Outside the church, she sits embroidering and talking to the apprentice John, and she notices his coat is torn and then finds a bruise on his neck. As she questions him about it, Grimes comes to take the boy to sea, despite poor weather, as he can Knowing he will die, Boccanegra tells Fiesco the truth and the two men are reconciled. Amelia and Gabriele are married and the dying Boccanegra declares Gabriele his successor. Aria: Come in quest'ora bruna... (‘In this dark hour...See how the stars and ocean'); duet (with Adorno): Vieni a mirar la cerual marina tremolante (‘Come and look at the shimmering azure sea’). Created (1857) by Luigia Bendazzi; (1881) by Anna d’Angeri.


Jim Hobcon:

Bass. A carrier. He is reluctant to fetch Grimes's new Apprentice, but agrees to do so when Ellen Orford volunteers to accompany him and escort the boy back. Created ( 1945 ) by Frank Vaughan...

Magic Flute. "Queen of the Night Aria" -Natalie Dessay

Ned Keene:

Baritone. Apothecary and quack. Supplies Mrs Sedley with her pills. Finds a new Apprentice for Grimes. To cause a distraction and thus avoid an unpleasant scene in the Boar, he leads the crowd in the round Old Joe has gone fishing. Created (1945) by Edmund Donlevy.

Capt Balstrode:

Baritone. Retired merchant skipper. One of Grimes's few friends. He helps Grimes to haul in his boat and prevents Boles from attacking him in the Boar. Balstrode, accompanied by Ellen Orford, advises Grimes to take his boat out to sea and sink it to avoid the angry mob who think he has deliberately caused the death of his Apprentice. Aria: We live, and let live, and look. Created (1945) by Roderick Jones.

Mrs Sedley:

Soprano. A widow and the village gossip. Gets her pills from the quack Ned Keene. Aria: Murder most foul it is. Created (1945) by Valetta Iacopi.


Contralto. Landlady of ‘The Boar’. Trio (with Boles and Keene): Grimes is at his exercise. Created (1945) by Edith Coates.



Bass. Lawyer and Magistrate. He is the Coroner at the inquest on Grimes's dead Apprentice, and decides the death was due to ‘accidental circumstances’. Aria: Peter Grimes, I here advise you; quartet (with Nieces and Keene): Assign your prettiness to me. Created (1945) by Owen Brannigan.


Bob Boles:

Tenor. Methodist fisherman. An aggressive man, especially under the influence of drink. He is the chief instigator of the witch-hunt against Grimes. He tries to attack him in the Boar and is prevented by Balstrode. Created (1945) by Morgan Jones.


Rector Horace Adams:

Tenor. Rector of the Borough. Suspecting Grimes of being responsible for the death of his apprentices, he leads the men as they march to Grimes's hut to investigate his treatment of his latest Apprentice, John. Created (1945) by Tom Culbert.

Nieces I and II:
Sop. ‘Nieces'of ‘Auntie’, the landlady of ‘The Boar’, and its main attraction. Quartet (with Auntie and Ellen Orford): From the gutter . Created ( 1945 ) by Blanche Turner and Minnie Bower.



In the moot hall, or local court, of The Borough, a small town on the East Coast during the opening years of the 19th century, an inquest is being held. Lawyer Swallow swears in the principal witness, Peter Grimes, who tells haltingly how his apprentice had died on a fishing trip. They had had a huge catch, but the wind blew them off their course, drinking water ran out, and after three days the boy died. On his return, Peter cried for help; and the people immediately showing enmity, he abused Mrs. Sedley, the town’s strait-laced old busybody who is very wealthy and known as “Mrs. Nabob." eventually, the widowed schoolmistress, Mrs. Ellen Orford (who is the nearest thing to a heroine in this opera), helped Peter carry the body home.

Through this brief, swift scene, the dramatic line-up is quickly made clear. Grimes is a peculiar, silent, gruff man thoroughly distrusted by almost the entire village, but pitied
and befriended by Ellen and understood only by Balstrode, a retired merchant skipper. Peter is advised not to take on any more boys as assistants—or to get a woman to look after him if he does. A woman is precisely what Peter aspires to have, and Ellen specifically. This becomes clear when the couple are left alone; but it also becomes clear in their duet that until he has cleared his name and reputation, he feels too bitter about the town gossips to tie her to himself.



Scene 1 Several days later, there is the usual crowd on the street by the sea, outside the “Boar Tavern,” with the moot hall on one side and Ned Keene’s apothecary shop on the other. The retired sea captain, Balstrode, sits on the breakwater eyeing a coming storm; fishermen are welcomed into the “Boar” by Auntie; a methodistical fellow, named Bob Boles, refuses to have anything to do with them; Ned Keene joshes Auntie about the two girls who are the main attraction of her pub and whom she refers to as her “nieces”; “Mrs. Nabob” tries secretly to get more laudanum from Keene; and everyone busily comments on the scene and on the worsening weather. Among the crowd is the figure of Dr. Crabbe (the respected physician who wrote fine books which inspired this opera). Amidst all this, Grimes asks for help in hauling up his boat, but only Balstrode and Keene will give him a hand. The latter tells him he has secured a new boy for him from the work-house, but that he will have to be called for. Hobson, the carter, refuses to do this job, giving the excuse that he cannot supervise the boy and do all his other errands as well; but Ellen saves the day—much to almost everyone’s disapproval—by offering to go along and take care of the lad. She even turns on the crowd and in an aria ( Let her among you without fault) lectures them for their lack of Christianity.

The storm is rising now in earnest, both on the stage and in the orchestra pit, and after a large concerted number on this subject ( Look out for squalls), the stage is left alone to Grimes and Balstrode. The retired captain advises Peter to leave the village and enlist with a merchantman, but the grim young man is bound to fight his fight against the village, win over its respect by prospering, and then marry Ellen. “She’ll have you now,” suggests Balstrode. But Grimes will not be married out of pity, and he grows angry at the older man for tendering him good advice. And when Balstrode goes off to help Auntie shutter up her pub, Grimes closes the scene with a passage in which he passionately yearns for the comfort of Ellen’s breast.

Scene 2 The interlude depicts the storm growing ever stronger, and it is still raging when the curtain goes up on the inside of the “Boar” at 10.30 that night. "Mrs. Nabob” is there hoping to get her laudanum from Keene; the two “nieces” come in in their night-clothes, afraid of the storm; and the methodistical Boles, now quite drunk, tries to make passes at them. Fortunately, Captain Balstrode is there to keep him under control.

Grimes comes stumbling in out of the storm without lie oilskins all the others are wearing, and looking like a thing completely apart. That is how he is treated, and when he sings a strange song about the stars and the storm (Now the great Bear), the drunken Boles decides the man has sold his soul to the devil and tries to hit him over the head with a bottle. Balstrode intervenes once more, and peace is temporarily restored as everyone breaks into an elaborate and effective round concerning fishing, three strikingly different tunes being sung simultaneously. But when the strong tenor voice of Peter takes up the round alone with a saturnine variation on the words, the others recoil temporarily in horror, then take it up again. At the climax, Hobson the carter breaks in accompanied by Ellen and the new boy for Grimes; and the scene closes as Grimes insists on taking the boy home directly, despite the storm and despite the fact that it has washed away the cliff outside his house.


Scene 1 It is several weeks later and a fine, sunny Sunday morning, as the music of the intermezzo (or Act II Prelude) suggests. Ellen is outside the church, whence issue sounds, now and again, of the music of the service and even a portion of the sermon. Ellen sits knitting, sings philosophically about the weather, and speaks comfortingly to little John, Grimes’s new apprentice, who stands gloomily by never uttering a sound. Presently she discovers a tear in his coat and a bruise on his neck. Peter, she realizes, has been maltreating the boy despite his promises to reform. The gloomy fisherman comes in to get the boy to go out in his boat and roughly repulses Ellen when she asks that the child be allowed to rest on Sunday at least. No, says Peter, he must solve his problems by “lonely toil,” by amassing wealth, and forcing the good opinion of The Borough. In despair, Ellen declares that this plan is not a good one, that they have failed together. Peter cries out in anguish, strikes the woman he thought would save him, and runs off after John.

But Boles, Keene, and Auntie have overheard some of this quarrel, and they come out from their shops and sing a trio —Grimes is at his exercise. Gradually the stage fills with the congregation from the church, and a strong feeling against Grimes is again worked up despite Ellen’s attempts to explain what had happened. The chorus works up to a pitch where they feel sure that murder is afoot, and a party of men is organized to go to Grimes’s place expecting to find him doing something dreadful. Even the respected Balstrode cannot dissuade them, especially after the Rector is persuaded that something must be done. Only Auntie, her "nieces,” and Ellen remain behind to sing a quartet about the childishness of men:

Shall we smile or shall we weep
Or wait quietly till they sleep?


Scene 2 Grimes’s hut turns out to be only an upturned boat, but it is in ship-shape order. There are two doors—one to the road, the other to the cliff that, as we have heard, has been recently washed away in the storm. Peter shoves the boy into the hut and throws his sea-going clothes towards him. The boy only sniffles, and Peter has a long aria in which he speaks of his ambition to have a good home with Ellen and with children of theirs. But at its close, he seems to be haunted by a vision of the boy who had died in the boat. Just then he hears the posse on its way up. He thinks the boy has been complaining about him, and rudely pushes him out of the hut on the cliff side. Then he climbs out after him—and we hear a terrible scream: the boy has fallen down the cliff that isn't there. But the posse has not heard it; and when they come snooping in, they are only impressed with the neatness and innocent appearance of the hut. Ironically, Swallow is inspired to comment that this should put an end to the anti-Grimes gossip; but Balstrode, looking out of the hut on the cliff side, remains there after the others depart.


Scene 1 After a quiet prelude, descriptive of the moonlight, the curtain rises on the street outside the “Boar Tavern.” It is an evening several days later, and first a polka, later a waltz, is heard as it is danced at the tavern. Outside, the drunken Swallow makes heavy-handed advances to the “nieces,” and when they have escaped him, Mrs. Sedley tries to impress Ned Keene with her suspicions about Grimes and his new apprentice, who have not been seen for two days. Keene only laughs at her. Then, after a group of respectable folk have said goodnight to the Rector and Dr. Crabbe, Ellen and Balstrode come in, much worried. Though Peter has been missing two days, his boat is still on land, and Ellen has found the boy's jersey, all wet. They fear the worst, and go off, rather hopelessly, to try to help him. Mrs. Sedley then seeks out Swallow, insists that Grimes’s disappearance without his boat clearly points to murder, and finally manages to work up the people to a point where they are ready to form another posse to go after the outcast.

Scene 2 After a strange intermezzo, suggesting the madness that is finally descending on Peter Grimes, we see him, several hours later, beside his boat. Off-stage, the calling of the posse is heard now and again, as he has a long, weird scene by himself. He sings of the sea, refers to the deaths of his apprentices, imagines he is again with Ellen, curses his persecutors and defies them. Ellen and Balstrode come upon him there; and over Ellen’s protest, Balstrode—quietly and in a speaking voice—advises Peter to take his boat out to sea and sink with it. In a kind of trance, and with Balstrode’s help, Peter launches his boat.

Dawn comes, and with it the mob enters and disperses. Life in the fishing village starts again; Swallow notes that the coastguard reports a boat sinking at sea; they decide it is just a rumor; and everyone goes about his business.


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