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ClassicsOnline Home » BRITTEN, B.: Reflections - Violin and Viola Works (M. Jones, Thwaite)
Benjamin Britten was a viola player as well as a pianist and wrote a significant body of chamber music for stringed instruments. The works on this recording—which contains important world première recordings—were written between 1925 and 1937, with the exception of the masterpiece for viola, Lachrymae. Each reveals some characteristic aspect of Britten’s voice, from the variety and wit of the Suite for Violin and Piano, Op 6 to the little-known but absorbingly imaginative Reveille and the remarkably assured 1930 Elegy, written when he was just seventeen.
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Reflections: Music for Violin or Viola and Piano
Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1913. Following early piano lessons he began to study the viola at the age of ten, and at thirteen he met Frank Bridge, also a violist who, as his composition teacher, proved to be a pivotal figure in Britten’s life. The majority of Britten’s instrumental and chamber works date from early in his life—he became known later particularly for the large-scale works which he composed at a prolific rate, including fifteen operas. In addition he was a celebrated conductor and pianist, and, with Peter Pears, founded the Aldeburgh Festival.
With the exception of Lachrymae, all of the works on this disc were written between 1925 and 1937, prior to the composer’s meeting Peter Pears and their move to the United States in 1939. Thanks to the extraordinary work of the Britten-Pears Foundation in creating a thematic catalogue of Britten’s complete works, many hitherto unpublished pieces of solo and chamber music have recently been listed, including a substantial number of works for violin and viola.
Suite for Violin and Piano, written in 1934–5, is considered by many to be an early manifestation of the characteristic voice that makes Britten’s music so recognisable and memorable. First performed by the composer at the piano with his friend Antonio Brosa, it encompasses a remarkable range of characters and textures within its seventeen-minute duration, from the witty March to the breathtaking Moto perpetuo, the vulnerable Lullaby to the parodic Waltz. Reveille, dedicated to Brosa and written two years later, is equally virtuosic but explores an even greater range of techniques for the violin over an ostinato line played by the piano. In musically describing the difficulty that its dedicatee encountered trying to wake up in the morning (in stark contrast to early riser Britten) the compositional imagination on display is exceptional.
Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, composed on consecutive days in 1931 for violinist and composer Remo Lauricella, were inspired by poems of Shelley (The Waning Moon) and HC Beeching (A Boy’s Song) respectively. The Moon is an ‘instrumental version’ of the song which Britten had set some days earlier, with undulating accompaniment figures which pass between the instruments and a beautifully simple melody. Going Down Hill on a Bicycle is considerably more experimental, displaying the influence of Britten’s encounters with the music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and making this stand out from the majority of other works from this period. The earliest work on the disc, Valse in B major, is based on an untitled piece sketched when Britten was just ten years old. Two years later he made this version for violin and piano, but the melody eventually became the central section of the Sentimental Saraband from Britten’s well-known Simple Symphony, Op 4.
The earliest of the five works for viola presented on this recording dates from 1929, an Etude which was closely followed one year later by Reflection and Elegy. It is assumed that Britten played these works, but at fifteen he must have had a remarkably assured technique to navigate the imaginative and challenging double stopping in the Etude. One can imagine his creating such a ‘study’ with much more musical interest than the majority of viola studies he would have encountered, while still presenting significant specific technical challenges both for the bow and left hand.
Britten’s own title for Reflection was simply Piece—the work was renamed for publication and, like Elegy, not performed until long after the composer’s death, in 1995 and 1984 respectively. Beautifully crafted and emotionally charged, Reflection was composed shortly after Quartettino, one of Britten’s most accomplished works from this period. The influence of Bridge is evident, and the work was submitted, after minor revision, for a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music. Two months later, the day after he left Gresham’s School, Norfolk, Elegy was written, albeit without title from the composer himself. “I didn’t think I should be so sorry to leave”, he wrote in his diary, but the melancholic, soul-searching character of the work suggests otherwise.
Another diary entry, on 12 December 1932, reads “After lunch the Bridges come here for a bit & I do a bit more transcription”, referring to Britten’s work on a version of his teacher’s composition Impression for small orchestra after Hamlet, There is a willow grows aslant a brook. Britten had attended a choreographed performance of the work shortly before, and Bridge presented him with a copy of the score as a gift, inspiring him to transcribe the work for his, and Bridge’s, instrument. Remarkably, Britten succeeded in maintaining the atmosphere and much of the range of colours present in the original. Like Elegy and Reflection, the work was rediscovered after Britten’s death—the first public performance was not until 1988. Britten quoted part of Willow in the Fugue from the masterful Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and also made a reduced orchestration of the work for the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948.
By the time Britten composed Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, he had enjoyed enormous success with Peter Grimes, a work that rekindled interest in English opera for the first time since Purcell, and with many other works besides. It was the great violist William Primrose who inspired Britten to return to writing for his own instrument. Britten’s fascination with old English song led to the choice of Dowland’s love lament, If My Complaint Could Passions Move, from his collection Lachrimae as the theme on which to compose the variations that make up this work. Instead of keeping the structure of the theme, Britten creates imaginative individual episodes, using fragments of the above theme and a further Dowland song, Flow My Tears, building in intensity and mystery before the final climax and appearance of the theme in full. Elements of the atmospheric writing explored so many years before in the transcription of Willow are present, and the unconventional structure works to profoundly moving effect. Primrose and Britten gave the first performance of the work at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival. The composer later returned to Dowland in the masterful Nocturnal for guitar, and shortly before his death completed a version of Lachrymae for viola and string orchestra.
“Music for me is clarification; I try to clarify, to refine, to sensitize…My technique is to tear all the waste away; to achieve perfect clarity of expression, that is my aim.” – Benjamin Britten
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