Peter Grimes and his Others

Benjamin Britten

One of the first things I wrote on Britten’s operas will appear later this year in a Festschrift in honour of Julian Rushton (‘Being-With Grimes: the Problem of Others in Britten’s First Opera’. In Art and Ideology in European Opera: Essays in Honour of Julian Rushton, edited by Clive Brown, David Cooper, and Rachel Cowgill. Woodbridge: Boydell Brewer. In press.). It forms part of a larger series of studies of constructions of the human subject in Britten’s operas (see here and here).

Peter Grimes has the unusual double honour of guaranteeing the persistence of opera as an art-form in the second half of the twentieth century and providing the intellectual focus for the beginnings of the cultural turn and the ‘New Musicology’. Philip Brett’s groundbreaking 1977 study of the opera provided a springboard for the study of Britten’s operas, and Western art music more generally, from the perspective of victimized others, in this case mid-century British male homosexuals.

I set the opera in various theoretical and intertextual contexts to examine its presentation of human action. I focus the critical cross-hairs in an extended discussion of Heidegger’s notion of Mitsein, the ‘being-with’ that is an essential interpersonal and ethical component of Dasein’s being-in-the-world (i.e. human existence). Following a diversion into a consideration of the role of Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest (which is in some ways similar to that of Grimes), I examine Grimes’s Augenblick, the moment of vision that clarifies his relation with his ‘others’ in this opera (an idea developed from my first monograph). These ‘others’ are a Borough that presents him with a specific symbolic mandate (as ‘outlaw’ and ‘mad’) and Ellen Orford, who functions for him as the symbol of what will hold the mess of his personality together.


  • Brett, Philip. Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays. Edited by George E. Haggerty. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Cooke, Mervyn. The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Cooke, Mervyn, and Philip Reed. Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. London: Dent, 1979.
  • Harper-Scott, J. P. E. ‘Made You Look!: Children in Salome and Death in Venice.’ In Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Music, edited by Lucy Walker, 116–37. Woodbridge: Boydell Brewer, 2009.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Edward Macquarrie John Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.
  • ——— . ‘Letter on Humanism.’ In Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), edited by David Farrell Krell, 213–65. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Hindley, Clifford. ‘Homosexual Self-Affirmation and Self-Oppression in Two Britten Operas.’ The Musical Quarterly 76, no. 2 (1992): 143–168.doi:10.1093/mq/76.2.143.
  • Longobardi, Ruth Sara. ‘Reading Between the Lines: An Approach to the Musical and Sexual Ambiguities of Death in Venice.’ twentieth- century music 2, no. 1 (2005): 53–78. doi:10.1017/S1478572205000198.
  • ——— . ‘Reading Between the Lines: An Approach to the Musical and Sexual Ambiguities of Death in Venice.’ Journal of Musicology 22 (2005): 327–364.doi:10.1525/jm.2005.22.3.327.
  • Mitchell, Donald. Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Mitchell, Donald, and Hans Keller. Benjamin Britten: a Commentary on His Works from a Group of Specialists. London: Rockliff, 1952.
  • Payne, Anthony. ‘Dramatic Use of Tonality in Peter Grimes.’ Tempo 66/7 (1963): 22–26. doi:10.1017/ S0040298200036317.
  • Rupprecht, Philip. Britten’s Musical Language. Music in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Shawe-Taylor, Desmond. ‘“Peter Grimes”: a Review of the First Peformance.’ In Benjamin Britten: ‘Peter Grimes’, edited by Philip Brett, 153–158. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Whittall, Arnold. The Music of Britten and Tippett: Studies in Themes and Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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