Archive for John Vickers

Now the Great Bear and Pleiades

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on May 31, 2010 by telescoper

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.