Now the Great Bear and Pleiades

This Bank Holiday Monday I’ve been resolutely doing nothing at all, and very nice it’s been. I’m going to be similarly lazy about blogging today too, and just put up a piece of music. Some of you may know that BBC Radio 3 have recently been searching for the Nation’s Favourite Aria. Nominations are  accepted by email to but the closing date is tomorrow (1st June). A list of the ten most popular nominations will be published on 2nd June and listeners are then invited to vote on the one they like best.

They’ve been playing the nominations as they come in and, as you’d expect, there seems to be a strong tendency to Puccini and Verdi. Nothing wrong with that, of course. You can always rely on them for a great tune.  If you have a favourite, why not send it in? I’ll just point out that it has to be a solo aria, no duos, trios, quartets or even choruses allowed! I’m interested to see the top ten is, but I’ll bet Nessun Dorma is in there.

Anyway, I’ve already emailed my suggestion in. I don’t know whether it will make the final list but I think it provides one of the greatest passages in one of the greatest of all operas, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Most people I know who have seen Peter Grimes think it is a masterpiece, and I’m interested to see another physics blog has already discussed this aria. Still, I don’t think Britten is sufficiently appreciated even in the land of his birth. There aren’t that many operas written in English so perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable when we can actually understand what’s going on without reading the surtitles?

I’ve often heard Peter Grimes described as one of the great operas written in English. Well, as far as I’m concerned you can drop “written in English” from that sentence and it’s still true. It’s certainly in my mind fit to put up alongside anything by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and even Mozart.

In this aria it’s not just the extraordinary vocal line, beginning way up among the “head notes” beyond a tenor’s usual range, that makes it such a  powerful piece of music,  but also the tragic poetry in the words. The main character of Peter Grimes is neither hero nor villain, but  a man trapped in his own destiny. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades
where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds
of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher
In storm or starlight
The written character
of a friendly fate
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s
Like a flashing turmoil
of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?

The part of Peter Grimes was actually written by Britten specifically to suit the voice of his partner, Peter Pears, who performed the role first. The classic recording of that performance is wonderful, but I’ve picked a later version starring Jon Vickers which is different but also excellent. For its combination of musical expressiveness and dramatic intensity, this music really does take some beating even if you listen to it on its own outside the context of the opera.

13 Responses to “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter Grimes is magnificent, although I never thought of it as a source of arias. I hope that the top 10 includes

    Or sai chi l’onore (Donna Anna), Mozart: Don Giovanni
    In fernem Land (Lohengrin), Wagner: Lohengrin
    Porgi amor (Countess), Mozart: Marriage of Figaro

    Nessun Dorma is indeed magnificent, but how well would it be known in Britain but for the inspired use of it as the BBC’s theme for the 1990 World Cup in Italy?


  2. telescoper Says:

    I have acopy of the original programme for Peter Grimes, dated 1946 (price 2/6) in which it describes “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” as an arioso, which is sort of in between an aria and a recitative. In any case the rules specifically allow passages from operas which are through-composed rather than being made of set pieces (arias, duets, trios etc) separated by recitative. I’m not optimistic that it will make the top ten, but that’s just a matter of personal taste I suppose.

    I’d have to have Casta Diva from Norma (Bellini) on my top ten, Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme and also Nessun Dorma (Turandot) would be in there too.

    There’s any number of wonderful solo Mozart arias that could go in also, but I think Mozart’s greatest vocal writing was for two three or four voices.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    2/6d is a *huge* amount for a programme in 1946!

    Re Mozart, I agree – the unearthly trio in Act 1 of Don Giovanni, and the climax of that same act, are unbelievably amazing. (I now prefer that to the more famous climax of Act 2.)


    • telescoper Says:

      2s 6d is is one-eighth of an old pound (20 shillings). According to

      this amount in 1946 corresponds to a current value of £3.66.

      The price of a small loaf of bread in 1946 was about 4d, so the programme cost about 7.5 times as much as that. I bought a small loaf for 68p on saturday so using that as a calibrator would give a higher comparison value. Apparently a pint of milk was tuppence, so it cost 15 pintas to get a programme. A popular newspaper cost 1d so the programme was 30 newspapers’ worth. Again, a higher comparison. Just shows inflation hasn’t affected everything uniformly.

      Anyway, the programme wasn’t all that expensive really when you look at it. The old one doesn’t have any adverts in it, either, and they make up about 90% of present-day ones!

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Thanks for filling that out. It seems that programmes were rip-offs back then too.

  5. telescoper Says:

    I should have said they were no more ridiculously expensive in 1946 than they are now…

    In fact I went to Covent Garden to see Peter Grimes about 5 years ago and bought a programme as a souvenir. I think it cost a tenner. Apart from being glossy and padded out with adverts, most of the text devoted to analysing the opera was exactly the same as the 1946 programme. I chucked out all my old programmes when I moved to Cardiff, but I still manage to get suckered into buying them.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Here’s the top 10, not in order of popularity – we have to vote again to settle that (so it’s like a transferable vote system)

  7. telescoper Says:

    Very interesting. There’s a few in there I wouldn’t have predicted!

    My vote goes to Casta Diva….

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Astonishing that Nessun Dorma didn’t make the top 10! I’ve already voted for Dove Sono from Figaro.

  9. Bryn Jones Says:

    The nominations were made by Radio Three listeners, who are in general pretty well informed about music, and we might expect quite a level of sophistication in the choice. All the same, the top ten do surprise me. The BBC’s publicity for the vote included “Vissi d’Arte” from Tosca, which I therefore expected to get into the selection, but it is not there. Neither is “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly. I certainly don’t know the aria by Korngold in the list.

    Concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre usually include free programmes, although concert goers tend to have to have to seek the piles of programmes themselves. (I did suggest free programmes in a questionnaire handed out at a concert a few years ago, arguing that the cost of producing programmes for everybody would reduce substantially the average cost of a programme, and that including them in the price of a ticket could be beneficial. But I doubt my comments brought about the policy.)

  10. It’s actually my favourite, written for Pears in mind, utilising that E natural, sustaining it, creating such emotion with one note. The words are sublime, Britten’s words among some of the best in English literature. It truly is a great aria.

  11. Jopino Says:

    Two arias of note, both very beautiful: Una furtiva lagrima from L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti. And je croix entendre ancor from le pecheur de perle by Bizet.

  12. Jopino Suonare Says:

    As to recordings of the two. For una furtiva the great Tito Schipa.
    And for the Bizet none can equal Nicholai Gedda

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