Composers Datebook®

An opera debut for Britten and Bernstein

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) –Sunday Morning and Storm, fr Peter Grimes (New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, cond.) Sony Classical 47541

Composer's Datebook - 20220806


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August 06, 2022


On today's date in 1946, Leonard Bernstein conducted the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera, "Peter Grimes," at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts. "Peter Grimes" had received its very first performance in London the previous year, and had already been staged elsewhere in Europe before reaching America. In fact, this quintessentially British opera was originally an American commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation run by the famous conductor and music patron Serge Koussevitzky, who was the founder and guiding spirit of the Tanglewood Festival.

Opera News covered the American premiere with a feature titled "Peter Grimes On Trial – A Symposium of Verdicts," beginning by quoting with the grudging praise of the New York Times' very conservative critic that the opera was "a very interesting modern work in a provocative form."

Also included were quotes from the lead singers, who noted its "strange intervals, harmonies, and difficult counter-play of the various voices." But Boris Goldowsky, the music director of the Tanglewood Center, provided the most accurate assessment, given the hindsight of history: "The opera has lasting merit," said Goldovsky, "and it will join the standard repertory. Like all new works, it was difficult at first, but future productions will be easier."

Here's an additional historical footnote: the Tanglewood premiere of "Peter Grimes" was the first opera Leonard Bernstein conducted professionally, and the opera's instrumental "Sea Interludes" were on the program of the last orchestral concert he ever conducted, 44 years later, in August of 1990, and again at Tanglewood.

Music Played in Today's Program

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) –Sunday Morning and Storm, fr Peter Grimes (New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, cond.) Sony Classical 47541

On This Day


  • 1904 - Austrian music critic and university professor Eduard Hanslick, champion of Brahms and enemy of Wagner, dies in Vienna, aged 78

  • 1970 - German-born American composer Ingolf Dahl, age 68, in Frutigen, Switzerland;


  • 1946 - American premiere of Britten: opera "Peter Grimes," at Berkshire Music Center (Tangelwood), with Leonard Bernstein conducting;

  • 1947 - Villa-Lobos: "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 8, in Rome, conducted by the composer;

  • 1947 - Von Einem: opera "Dantons Tod" (The Death of Danton) at the Salzburg, Festival in Austria,with Ferenc Fricsay conducting;

  • 1966 - Henze: "Die Bassariden" (after Euripides' play "The Bacchae") at the Salzburg Festival in Austria;

  • 1967 - Piston: Clarinet Concerto, during the Fifth Congregation of the Arts at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire;

  • 1988 - Ned Rorem: “Bright Music” for flute, two violins, cello and piano, at Presbyterian Church, Bridgehampton (New York), by the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Associates;

  • 2000 - Joan Tower: "Big Sky" for piano trio, in LaJolla, Calif., at a SummerFest concert featuring Chee-Yun (violin), David Finckel (cello) and Wu Han (piano);


  • 1826 - At his parent's mansion outside Berlin, the 17-year-old German composer Felix Mendelssohn completes his overture to Shakespeare's comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream" after reading the play the previous month; The first private performance (in a two-piano version) was given at the family mansion by Felix and his sister Fanny on November 19, 1826; The first public performance (in its orchestral version) was given in Stettlin on February 20, 1827, conducted by Carl Loewe; Mendelssohn returned to the play nearly two decades later after he had become court composer to the King of Prussia, creating a whole score of incidental music besides the overture, and himself conducted the concert premiere of the expanded incidental music in Berlin on November 14, 1842 in Berlin; The complete incidental music integrated into a staging of Shakespeare's play was performed at the Neue Palais at Potsdam on October 14, 1843.