Composition Techniques in Peter Grimes

"Peter Grimes" tells a tale of tragedy detailing the life of a fisherman whom upon losing his apprentice at sea receives advice to wait to take on another apprentice until he finds a woman that can take care of the apprentice. The local town doesn’t believe the events at sea, as told by Peter Grimes, and a chasm forms when the town doesn’t believe his innocence. The composer, Benjamin Britten, uses some interesting techniques to depict the isolation between Grimes and his newfound ostracized position in the town.

Recitative and Speech

Britten uses recitative to accent the natural rises, falls and inflections of regular speech and notates these rises and falls so that a singer can perform them. Composers sometimes elongate words that in normal conversation would not be lengthened. During a recitative, the composer considers how the speech affects the music and attempts to notate the speech using notes, dynamics and articulations. The end result creates nuanced music that adds to the meaning of the text and adds additional mood and context of the speech. The composer may add unusual accents or other compositional elements if it aids in enhancing the libretto for the work. For example, a composer may unnaturally accent certain syllables in a word to help bring out a certain articulation, consonant or vowel sound.

Leaps and Bounds

Composers often use large leaps and skips in a composition to identify different motives within a composition. Britten specifically uses large to indicate the importance of his main characters. He relies heavily on the use of the interval of a major ninth, which is a dissonant and easily recognizable interval. Large intervals represent isolation and widen the gap the main character, Peter Grimes, feels about his position between his isolation and society’s understanding of him. Britten creates music to both enhance and give special meaning to the words used in the composition. The music helps to provide subtext and gives the text additional cues that can help the listener understand the thought process and motives of the characters. For example, during the opera, there is a point where the Peter Grimes looks for shelter from a storm. During the scene, villagers are heard singing a musical round to help energize their spirits. However, at the moment when Grimes arrives, the round becomes distorted and begins to use large, mostly dissonant, leaps. This compositional device signals the ever-increasing divide between Grimes and the rest of society.

Pedal Points

Pedal points are sustained pitches that usually reinforce the tonic of a composition. Britten uses pedal points to play the tonic in an attempt to establish the tonal center of “Peter Grimes.” The tonic of a key acts as the tonal center and is the first note of the scale used for the composition. As an example, in the key D major, the note D acts as the tonic of the scale. This works well for works that are largely tonal, but Britten is known for moving around through many different key centers in his works. In “Peter Grimes,” he alternates between major and minor keys frequently. By doing this, Britten doesn't write strictly in A major or minor, but he borrows freely from both A minor and the relative major key to provide a more chromatic and freer concept of tonality.

Passacaglia Transitions

Britten uses passacaglias to relate the music from each of the acts. By placing a Passacaglia between acts, he is able to create a seamless transition between otherwise highly different musical materials. Composers often use transitions to connect otherwise unrelated sections. Britten excels at this by using passacaglias to provide perfect transitions that take the listener on a journey. Passacaglia usually consist of four bar phrases that repeat a musical idea, or ostinato, several times as new melodies and variations of the melodies play atop the steady background ostinato.


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