About this Recording
8.553883 - BRITTEN: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Three Divertimenti

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 25
String Quartet No. 2 in C major, Op. 36
Three Divertimenti for String Quartet, 'Go play, boy, play!' (1936)

Benjamin Britten's compositions for string quartet include some of the most important examples of the genre in the twentieth century. They include four quartets and three movements from an unfinished suite and reflect his understanding of a medium of which he had experience as a performer.

Born in Lowestoft in 1913, Britten quickly outgrew local resources for guidance in composition and was sent for instruction in 1927 to Frank Bridge who became both teacher and friend. In common with Bridge, Britten played the viola, and his works for string instruments are from the earliest attempts, entirely idiomatic, with a thorough understanding of all aspects of performing techniques. His brother Robert was a violinist, and Britten's first compositions reflected these family abilities.

Frank Bridge was a fortunate choice of mentor – his harmonic leanings found sympathy with more contemporary European ideals, especially Berg, and this cosmopolitan outlook, almost unique amongst British composers of the time, was quickly recognised by Britten's precocious talent. In contrast, when Britten later attended the Royal College of Music, he found that his compositional style did not always find favour with the establishment. He studied with John Ireland, but kept in close contact with Bridge, and frequently asked his advice. He said of these years "They don't seem very happy in retrospect. I feel I didn't learn very much".

The Three Divertimenti were composed in 1933, towards the end of his student life at the Royal College. The three movements originally belonged to an unfinished suite for quartet entitled Alla quartetto serioso 'Go play, boy, play', and were intended as a series of portraits of school friends; the first of the athletic David Lay ton from Gresham's, Holt, his public school, and the third of Francis Barton, a friend from South Lodge, his earlier private school. The movements bore the titles PT, At the Party and Ragging but were withdrawn, revised and re-born in 1936 as Three Divertimenti. The March is one of the earliest examples of Britten's use of this form – a recurring feature of his later works. The charming Waltz has an air of calm relaxation before the almost mota perpetua energy of the Burlesque. They were first performed in this version by the Stratton Quartet (later to become the Aeolian Quartet) at the Wigmore Hall on 2Sth February 1936.

Britten first met the tenor Peter Pears in 1934, but it was in 1937, after the death of the latter's close friend Peter Burra, that a relationship began that was to continue until Britten's death in 1976. As the uneasy decade of the 1930's drew to a close, Britten and Pears made the decision to move to America, largely under the influence of the poet W.H. Auden and the writer Christopher Isherwood, who had despaired of the old world with its conventions and apparent sterility. When Frank Bridge saw Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears set sail on the SS Ausonia on 29th April 1939 bound for Canada, it was to be the last meeting of pupil and teacher. Bridge died in 1941, the year of the String Quartet No. 1 in D Op. 25. An earlier string quartet in the same key written in 1931, was revised in 1974 and first performed in this revision at Snape. Both the first two numbered string quartets date from the years of the Second World War. After his collaboration with W.H. Anden on the folk opera Paul Bunyan, which received indifferent reviews, Britten and Pears passed the summer of 1941 in California as guests of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. It was here that he was commissioned to write the String Quartet in D major by the wealthy American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The quartet was first performed by the Coolidge Quartet in Los Angeles on 21st September 1941. During this Californian summer, Britten also discovered the work of the poet George Crabbe (1755-1832). After reading a transcript of E.M. Forster's broadcast on Crabbe, Pears found a copy of his work in an antiquarian bookshop and, particularly impressed by The Borough, with its characters from the life of his own native East Anglia, Britten resolved to write an opera about the tormented fisherman, Peter Grimes. Althongh the composition of the second quartet is more nearly contemporary with Peter Grimes, there are distinct similarities with the sound world of the Quartet in D. The opening Andante sostenuto with its high tessitura and directed to be played molto vibrato has much of the feeling found in the Dawn Interlude from Grimes and similarly the third movement Andante calmo in 5/4 looks forward to the Moonlight Interlude. These two movements are separated by the Scherzo, Allegretto con slancio, which, somewhat like that of the Violin Concerto of 1939, is reminiscent of Shostakovitch. A frothy and humorous finale, Molto vivace, concludes the work.

In July 1945, and at his own request, Britten made a tour of Germany as accompanist to Yehudi Menuhin, who had undertaken to play to the survivors of German concentration camps, including Belsen. Britten must have been affected by this and it was on his return that he completed the String Quartet No. 2 in C major, Op. 36. This astonishing work was given its first performance by the Zorian Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on 21st November, 1945. Together with the settings of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne and The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, it was written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. The two large-scale outer movements flank the malevolent Scherzo (Vivace). Played with mutes, the trio offers no respite, being thematically linked to the movement's primary theme. The first movement, Allegro calmo senza rigore, is in sonata form, but stretches the exposition out to such a length as to dwarf the development, while the recapitulation is still shorter. The main three themes that constitute the first subject are characterised by a rising tenth. The final Chacony is a ground followed by 21 variations, interspersed with cadenzas for the cello, viola and first violin – the second violin accompanies the viola cadenza by sustaining a C throughout. It was in a filler for the recording of the quartet by the Zorian Quartet that Britten himself played second viola in Purcell's Fantasy upon One Note, the entire work being constructed around a sustained C. The Chacony, in the very spelling of its title and in its form, is an overt tribute to Purcell. The first six variations are harmonic and the cello cadenza separates these from a further set of six which are basically rhythmic. Then follows the viola cadenza and six contrapuntal variations. The cadenza for first violin heralds the final three variations and the movement ends with an almost Beethoven-like reaffirmation of the tonic tonality.

Close the window