Beethoven and . . . Britten?

Beethoven and . . . Britten?

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Remember Beethoven? Late in 2019 the classical-music world set out to celebrate a Beethoven Year, but then the pandemic got in the way. Has this become an odd moment to chat about, say, Beethoven’s Opus 95 (“Quartetto Serioso,” 1810)? Maybe not. Beethoven is remembered on a human level for his general irascibility, his go-it-alone tendencies, part and parcel of a life rooted in rebellion. Opus 95 is rightly considered a gateway to his epic Late Style: sometimes violent, often chaotic, it dares us to make sense of its behavior. What better time to bring up musical disruptions, great and small? (Composer Benjamin Pesetsky has written a really good short essay about this work; he quotes one of my heroes, Joseph Kerman, which makes it an even better read: click here.)


In the summer of 1811 Beethoven met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 21 years his senior but one of the few people he considered an artistic or intellectual equal. After their encounter, the older man told a friend

His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable either for himself or others by his attitude.

To be fair, the years 1809–11 were scarred for Beethoven by illness, disappointments in love, and political upheaval (Vienna had lately suffered a second Napoleonic invasion and then a five-month occupation by the French). The composer retreated inward; his op. 95 quartet marks the first in a series of chamber works far more introspective than any of the heroic, large-scale “public” offerings of the previous years. Over a decade of silence would intervene before he issued more of his new “private” music.

Which brings us toward today’s Plus One, another of the unlikely counterparts I’ve suggested in these pages: Benjamin Britten (1913–1976). Britten’s string quartets are worth celebrating partly because they were conceived without so much as a backward glance at Beethoven’s legacy. Here’s why you shouldn’t think that odd.

We continue to celebrate Britten mainly for vocal music, for operas like Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, big choral works (War Requiem) and small ones (Rejoice in the Lamb; A Ceremony of Carols), song cycles, canticles, church parables. But he was an accomplished pianist, a keen violist, and an enthusiastic participant in informal music-making with friends. Britten scholar Donald Mitchell argues that he was also more active as a chamber-music composer than most of his contemporaries. According to Mitchell, even his vocal music—including the operas—aspires to chamber music’s conditions, especially its “concentrated, economical, and demanding” musical thought.

Britten published three numbered string quartets; these were preceded by a handful of student works including a charming “oboe quartet,” Phantasy, op. 2. There’s a lot to explore. Let’s begin at the very beginning, with the first movement of the First Quartet, Op. 25 (1941):


Perhaps you were struck, as I was, by the music’s overt preference for coloration and mood as opposed to what earlier quartet masters (Haydn, Beethoven) emphasized, namely dialogue and procedure (= narrative). The genre’s vaunted “conversations,” its spirited contrapuntal exchanges, appear to have been replaced by landscape painting! Figures eventually appear on the canvas, but priority has been given to sketching the scenery. (Should we blame Debussy, that supreme promoter of the pictorial?)

The analogy can be extended: whereas the protagonist of Beethoven’s quartets remains first and foremost Beethoven himself, we only “see” Britten indirectly in a work like this, as a clear-eyed observer of what is about to unfold. The three upper strings offer sustained, eerie chords suggesting a deserted seacoast at low tide; a plucked cello provides stark contrast in terms of movement, registral geography (high vs. low), and emotional subjectivity (is our observer wandering the beach alone?).

Fast forward: toward the end of his life, Britten accepted a commission from his friend the critic Hans Keller for a new string quartet. He had finished the last of his operas, Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novella, and may have wished to create a valediction of sorts for his career in chamber music. The Third Quartet, Op. 94 (1976) opens its fifth and final movement (at 17:20 below) with an echo of the colors and textures of the First Quartet’s first movement. By naming this passage a “recitative,” Britten frankly identifies the cellist as this scene’s principal character.


If you listen all the way through that final movement, you’ll experience yet another Britten specialty, the chaconne or passacaglia (= variations on a bass pattern or chord sequence), especially as it was employed by Henry Purcell (1659–1695). Beginning at 20:18, the bass pattern remains quite clear to the end of the movement. Incidentally, Britten said he derived this pattern from the sound of certain Venetian bells. Both the first and concluding movements of the quartet also feature thematic quotations from Death in Venice. Clearly Britten identified with Gustav von Aschenbach, his protagonist, and also with Gustav Mahler, who like Britten faced the prospect of death (in both cases, from heart disease) without despair but with—in his music at least—a measure of tenderness and warmth.

It remains to describe Britten’s Second Quartet, Op. 36 (1945) and the Phantasy.

Written only four years after the First Quartet, the Second nevertheless reveals a composer manifestly more confident in his powers. He had recently completed his first major opera—Peter Grimes, about a tormented, brutish fisherman and the grubby village he calls home; the opera subjects both to unforgiving moral scrutiny. The source material was George Crabbe’s narrative poem, “The Borough,” first published in (!) 1810. Some sense of nature’s powerful presence in the story may be gained from scene and interlude titles: “On the beach,” “A street by the sea,” “The storm,” “The Borough by moonlight,” “Fog.” There’s also a monumental passacaglia, meant as an exploration of Grimes’s tormented state of mind. The Second Quartet echoes that passacaglia with its own lengthy “Chacony”—a term borrowed from Purcell—beginning at 11:45 in the video below. (Its 20 minutes are broken into four sections to form a prelude, scherzo, adagio, and coda.) We could say that the first two quartets reveal Britten’s painterly and dramatic talents at play both before and after he brought forth Grimes.

(Compare Britten’s long Chacony with the second movement of Beethoven’s op. 95, which more freely alternates two structural devices, a simple descending bass line and a chromatic fugato; begin at 4:55 in the first video. Whereas Britten suggests a fateful progression of events—destiny of a sort—Beethoven’s refusal to settle on a compositional strategy suggests only his own restless spirit.)

The absolutely first thing you may notice about Britten’s Second Quartet, however, is its “calm expansiveness.” That from critic David Matthews, who likens it to Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet No. 1 (op. 59,  1805–6): there’s “no sense of being in a hurry.” True to a point, since both Beethoven and Britten employ stasis—pedal tones and other sustaining devices—at the outset (hear the Beethoven here). But in Op. 59, Beethovenian energy asserts itself immediately, and in Britten’s Second, watch out for what Britten does with the recap! (In the above link’s first movement, the development section begins at 2:14, the recap at 6:10, with slashing C-major chords.) There, the three successive “paragraphs” of the expansive opening theme are piled on top of one another (= stated simultaneously), generating a series of disorders that require a full 23 measures of C major at the end just to calm everything down (and then you’ll hear a Beethovenesque shrug at the very end. . . . ).


A surviving number of juvenile efforts indicate that Britten confronted the idea of creating a string quartet early and often. But his first chamber work of real substance, over which, Mitchell tells us, “Britten labored hard and long, continuously revising and rewriting,” was the Phantasy Quartet, op. 2, completed in 1932 with oboist Leon Goossens in mind.


As to recordings: Undoubtedly, historic performances of these works will have long since claimed some steadfast adherents. Among recent recordings, I strongly recommend a double-disc set of Britten and Purcell by the Doric String Quartet (Chandos), also available as a high-res download. The full range of Britten’s expression is brought out by these polished, enormously persuasive performances; to pair them with music by his favorite earlier English composer only enhances their value. They should provide you with hours of additional pleasure as you swim ever more deeply into Britten’s world.

I first responded to these works through an attractive series recorded by the Emperor Quartet for BIS. These have the advantage of including several juvenile efforts referenced above, plus a fascinating quartet reading of the Simple Symphony. And they are available in multichannel, although the digital source material is not always 24-bit.

We’ll save the endless topic of Beethoven quartet recordings for a later, proper discussion of the Beethoven quartets. It’s coming.

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