Those themes are present both in the "War Requiem" and in Britten's 1945 tragic opera "Peter Grimes." Coincidentally, both works are being performed this weekend in the Midwest: the "War Requiem" in a series of concerts in Chicago Thursday through Sunday and "Peter Grimes" in a special concert performance on Saturday night here in St. Louis by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
The Chicago performances are part of the Chicago Symphony's regular subscription series. The Saturday special here is a preview of the "Peter Grimes" the symphony will be presenting in Carnegie Hall in New York on Friday, November 22nd—the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth. It's one of over 1000 special concert events being presented this year to celebrate the great English composer's centenary; you can see a complete list at the Britten 100 web site.
Born in East Anglia in 1913, Britten studied composition with Frank Bridge and John Ireland. He lived in the USA from 1939 to 1942 and then returned to settle in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where he would remain the rest of his life. Although he got international attention with his "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge" for strings in 1937, it wasn't until the 1940s that his music began to achieve widespread acceptance, with performances of his "Ceremony of Carols" (a worldwide favorite around this time of year), the "Sinfonia da Requiem," and, of course, "Peter Grimes"—a huge hit with audiences and critics alike in 1945. By the time Britten died in 1976 he was firmly established as one of the most important figures in 20th century music.
Most classical fans are familiar with the "Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes." These little gems are powerfully evocative of the geographical and psychological landscape of the opera. They're also a nice distillation of what you can expect from the complete performance of the opera on Saturday.
Inspired by a section of the poem "The Borough" by clergyman and poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), the story revolves around the persecution of the title character – a sullen and socially awkward fisherman – by the denizens of a small coastal fishing village. In the poem he's a clear villain but in Montagu Slater's libretto it's ambiguous how much of Grimes's tragic end is his fault and how much the result of persecution by villagers. What's not ambiguous is that, even at the relatively young age of 31, Britten was already a master of orchestral color and mood.
"Britten," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes, "declared that the struggle between the exceptional individual and society was ‘a subject very close to my heart.' That Peter Grimes portrays that struggle through a decidedly flawed character, less hero than anti-hero, makes it a challenging work but not a less compelling one." It's also possible that Britten intended the work to serve, to some extent, as a condemnation of the homophobia which Britten, as a gay man, saw quite clearly in British society.
The soloists for Saturday's performance include tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes (a role he has sung often, including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York), soprano Susanna Phillips as schoolmistress Ellen Orford (who suspects—but can't prove—that Grimes might be abusing his young apprentice, John), bass-baritone Alan Held as Captain Balstrode (in whom Ellen confides), and contralto Meredith Arwady as Auntie (who helps stir the mob up against Grimes). David Robertson conducts the orchestra and chorus.
The chorus plays an important narrative role in "Peter Grimes," so precision in singing and diction will be important. Fortunately chorus director Amy Kaiser has an awfully good track record in that regard.
"Peter Grimes" is a big undertaking for the symphony, which does a relatively small number of chorus and orchestra pieces every season and rarely anything on quite this scale. Those chorus and orchestra concerts have, however, generally been season highlights, so I think you'll find it interesting to see and hear the results—and to see what the New York critics have to say on the 22nd.
"Peter Grimes" will be performed on Saturday, November 16, at 8 PM at Powell Hall and will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via streaming at the station's web site. For more information: stlsymphony.org.