Musical Techniques in "Peter Grimes"

by Steven J. Miller

The opera "Peter Grimes" is a tale of tragedy about a fisherman who first loses his apprentice at sea and receives advice to avoid taking on a new apprentice until he can find a woman to take care of the apprentice. A chasm occurs between the town and Peter Grimes as they do not believe he is innocent of his apprentice's death. Composer Benjamin Britten uses several techniques to illustrate the isolation between Grimes and the world he finds himself ostracized from.

Good Recitative

The term "good recitative" refers to the act of taking the natural rises, falls and inflections of regular speech into consideration and writing it for the singing voice. In music, sometimes it becomes necessary to elongate words that in regular speech would not be lengthened. With "good recitative" the composer considers the speech, how it relates to music and how it can be affixed to a musical score. The goal with this type of recitative involves presenting words to the audience in a way that would be impossible in regular speech. Unnatural accents may be included in "good recitative" if it helps to accentuate certain aspects of the music. For example, accenting the "ah" sound in car wouldn't be done in regular speech, but it may be completed successfully in music.

Large Intervals

Britten uses large leaps in his main characters to indicate their importance. The most commonly used interval is a major 9th. These wide intervals serve to represent the isolation and wide gap the main character, Peter Grimes, feels in relation to society. In this way, Britten created the music to enhance and provide special meaning to the words used in the dramatic work. This provides several levels of meaning not possible without the use of the music. As an example, the character Peter Grimes seeks to take shelter during a storm. The villagers begin singing a musical round to help enliven spirits. However, when Grimes arrives on the scene, the round becomes more discordant with large leaps, signifying the divide between Grimes and the rest of the world.

Pedal Points

In an attempt to establish a tonal key within "Peter Grimes," Britten makes use of pedal points that play the tonic of the key. The tonic in music is the first note of a key. So, in the key of C major, the tonic would be C. However, Britten does not stay within one key in his music. Instead, he changes often between major and minor keys. In this way, Britten doesn't write in the key of A major or minor, but more loosely in the key of C borrowing easily and loosely between the major and the minor versions of A.


Britten makes extensive use of passacaglias to link the music from different acts. He will place a passacaglia in between acts to create a seamless link between otherwise musically different materials. A passacaglia consists generally of four bar phrases that repeat a musical idea, known as an ostinato, several times while new and varying melodies play above the steady background ostinato.

About the Author

Steven Miller graduated with a master's degree in 2010. He writes for several companies including Lowe's and IBM. He also works with local schools to create community gardens and learn environmentally responsible gardening. An avid gardener for 15 years, his experience includes organic gardening, ornamental plants and do-it-yourself home projects.