Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Tuesday, August 6

An opera debut for Britten and Bernstein

Synopsis

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

Additional Information

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