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Britten (1913-1976) - Four Sea Interludes, From 'Peter Grimes'

In 1939, Britten left Britain for New York, conscientiously objecting and writing the Violin Concerto, the bizarre Paul Bunyan, the First String Quartet, and those delectable “Rossiniana”, Matinees Musicales. In 1942 Britten returned to Britain, settling in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. Facing the foe brought an understandable shift in the general tone of his music: the Prelude and Fugue for Strings, the Hymn to St. Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and Festival Te Deum. Inhabiting an environment dominated by the often forbidding North Sea, Peter Grimes, destined to set a cat among the pigeons of Twentieth Century British opera, was almost inevitable. Even before its Sadler's Wells première (June 1945), he had extracted the Four Sea Interludes (and a Passacaglia) for concert use. 

The plot, concerning harsh human conflict, matters here only inasmuch as its grim undercurrents imbue the Interludes with a pervasive aura of hackle-raising menace. Often obscured by more obvious attractions, this stems partly from keenly-etched orchestration, but owes far more to the sombre shadows cast by looming, heaving thematic contours. 

1. Dawn: High-pitched keening evokes a desolate, marrow-freezing seascape, alternating with a threatening sea-swell rising blindly from the depths. This latter reminds me of a Tennyson poem, starting :-

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth.

2. Sunday Morning: Church-going versus “business as usual”! Overlapping horns proclaim a bell-like ostinato, against which jostles a spiky melody bristling with pin-sharp piccolo and (later) pizzicato violins. A contrasting theme flows uneasily on violas and 'cellos, haloed by woodwind arabesques. Pursuing an extended ternary form, the music gains in muscularity, but is increasingly undermined by a deep, resonant tolling. The scene blurs and crumbles before our very ears. 

3. Moonlight: Rising in small surges, a hesitant chorale is pierced by sharp sparks of woodwind and pizzicato strings brushed by light percussion: the moon striking silver flashes from the sea's night-swell. Gradually, the chorale distends, a dull throb generating fearsome surges, trumpet and xylophone intensifying the luminous splashes. 

4. Storm: A simple rondo (broadly, ABACADA) starts spectacularly: thunderous tympani and raging brass ignite fugato pyrotechnics [A]. Threatening phrases rise chromatically [B], and, on the first return of [A], Britten seems to quote the Sturmisch bewegt of Mahler's Fifth.  [C] brings splattering rain and spray. Bluster substitutes for originality, until the arrival of [D]:  a ray of hope challenges menace. In the distance, the sun seems to split the storm-clouds. Sun and Storm compete. Storm wins.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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