Benjamin Britten: Channeling England’s Musical History

Benjamin Britten: Channeling England’s Musical History

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Some composers are particularly tuned in to the eras that led up to their own. Among the best examples is Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976), who often seemed to channel the entire musical history of his native England, even going back to the early Medieval period. Yet he used those pre-existing ideas in ways that always sounded completely original. Several recent recordings serve as a reminder of Britten’s skill in a range of genres.

Britten, as a violist himself, had a great love of string quartet music. He numbered three of his quartets. There are also two early ones without numbers, one written when he was only 18. Unsure of its quality, he tucked that early attempt into a drawer and didn’t pull it out again until the end of his life. He gave it a revision (but no opus number) and had it published in 1974, calling it simply String Quartet in D major. His F major quartet, composed in 1928 when he was 14, did not see publication until 1995, almost 20 years after his death.

The Quartet No. 3 in G major was Britten’s last completed work. It is dense and gorgeous, a major challenge for any ensemble that attempts it. On The Complete Warner Classics Edition, which includes all the Belcea Quartet’s recordings from 2000 – 2008, that ensemble plays many of the Britten works (along with quartets by many other composers, several of whom were also active in the 20th century, such as Dutilleux and Bartók). Although the Belcea left off Britten’s un-numbered D major quartet, they did include his 3 Divertimenti, for string-quartet instrumentation.

Founded in London in 1994 by a Czech violinist and a Polish violist, the Belcea Quartet has a distinctively rich, powerful sound that makes it ideal for Britten’s chamber music. They made an interesting choice at the original release of these recordings: they hired a film team, so there are videos of them playing these pieces.

The opening movement of Quartet No. 3, called “Duets,” has remarkable density, yet Britten’s signature ability to write fluid, lyrical lines never forsakes him. The Belcea plays with clarity and purpose.


Britten’s Quartet No. 2 in C major, has an entirely different personality from his final work. Here it does not hide the sweetness under the stress. But he also explores contrasting textures to keep the music from becoming sentimental. The opening movement, marked “Allegro calmo senza rigore” (Allegro, calm and without strictness) starts with river-like fluidity that condenses at unexpected moments into wild rapids and jagged rocks.

The Belcea is ready at every bend in that river, changing their delivery from phrase to phrase with complete confidence and accuracy. (And kudos to them for managing to hire a film team to capture their playing of these albums. It’s a welcome addition to the listener’s experience, although surely the cost would be prohibitive for many groups.)


Another new compilation release of previous recordings is the Emperor Quartet’s Britten: The Music for String Quartet on BIS records. A British ensemble, the Emperor originally put out these recordings between 2010 and 2014. The best thing about this recording is its thoroughness. Besides the numbered and unnumbered quartets and the 3 Divertimenti, the Emperor also recorded the four-movement Miniature Suite, the Quartettino, and a string-quartet arrangement of the Simple Symphony (originally for string orchestra).

The Miniature Suite was composed when Britten was 15, in 1929. It is testament to his natural talent. Not surprisingly, at that age he was better at borrowing known compositional styles than at sounding unique. The opening movement, “Novelette,” for example, comes across as a tribute to Beethoven. But it’s an astonishing achievement for a teen.


Likewise, the unnumbered F Major quartet gives the sense of a young composer copying his musical heroes, as skillfully done as it may be. Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert – all are acknowledged in the opening Allegro vivace e con brio movement. It’s wonderful to hear these early works by Britten. Unfortunately, the Emperor Quartet lacks the focus and precision of the Belcea Quartet. The diffuse sound quality of the recording is also problematic.


String quartets make up only a small portion of Britten’s output. These days, he is best known for his operas, chief among them the masterful Peter Grimes. That work, premiered in 1945, has not enjoyed any new recordings in the past couple of years. (The most recent one I could find was the Chandos release from 2020, with Edward Gardner conducting the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Stuart Skelton, well worth listening to on high-res streaming.) However, there is a new recording of the best-known orchestral excerpt from Peter Grimes, the breathtaking beautiful and haunting 4 Sea Interludes.

They are included on Fratta: Orchestral Music by Stravinsky, Britten, and Scriabin, a release from Brilliant Classics. It is the debut album by Italian conductor Gianna Fratta, here leading the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana. It’s fair to say that Fratta’s career is just getting rolling; she has conducted some mid-sized American orchestras but mainly worked in Europe. I hope that changes, and she gets more opportunities worldwide.

Her interpretation of the second interlude, “Sunday Morning,” has the right fairylike qualities, evoking dappled sunlight that sometimes surprises us by shooting through the leaves in blinding rays. Britten uses polyrhythms to put the various sections of the orchestra into separate worlds, like many individual sources of light shining at the same time. Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana is wonderfully musical and stays in control despite the ease with which this movement can tip into chaos.


Although it’s outside the purview of this column, Fratta deserves accolades for her performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which opens the same album with appropriately earth-shaking power. 

Beyond opera, Britten wrote a great deal of vocal music for solo voice. His life partner, Peter Pears, was a tenor, and some of Britten’s greatest music was written for him to sing (including the title role of Peter Grimes). Among those works are several for tenor and string orchestra. A new recording on Harmonia Mundi by tenor Andrew Staples explores these pieces with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Daniel Harding conducts, and Christopher Parkes plays horn in the fascinating Serenade for Horn, Tenor, and Strings.

The album also includes the Nocturne for Tenor, 7 Obbligato Instruments, and Strings and Les Illuminations for Tenor and String Orchestra. That last work, premiered in 1940, uses the French poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.

The second of those songs is called “Villes,” describing a fictitious and spectacular city greater even than London or Paris. Staples’ has a voice very similar to Pears’ – intense and rounded, with tight vibrato – making him an ideal presenter of this music. Harding leads the orchestra through the wild details of the city’s architecture. The song is a short but brilliant gem. 


Britten had a prodigious gift for orchestration (some of us grew up listening to his A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, so we know). That skill is nowhere more apparent than in the gorgeous Nocturne, premiered in 1958. It was the composer’s last orchestral song cycle. Here is the fourth movement, “Midnight's Bell,” with a text by Jacobean poet Thomas Middleton. Harding and Staples’ interpretation is almost painfully delicate.


If the Nocturne had been the only piece Benjamin Britten wrote, he would still be worth remembering for generations. Luckily for us, he was very prolific.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Hans Wild/High Fidelity/public domain.

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