Listening to Britten – an introduction and some numbers

Benjamin Britten

The list of Britten’s works is ready to go – and listening commences this coming week. Before starting I wanted to give an idea of what lies in store, and to encourage you to join me wherever possible! As I go I will try to include Spotify links, music clips and YouTube links (taking copyright into account of course) but welcome any comments you, the reader, have to make, as they will be the lifeblood of this project.

So, with a deep breath, the task ahead (at last count!) includes 317 distinct works. I had to decide whether to separate out the folk song arrangements (54) and the Purcell realizations (42) – and in the end I decided to do just that, as I think they merit individual treatment. Add to that 45 individual songs, and we have a total of 141 songs to take in. Although some are fragments barely one minute in length, they will form a very important part of the listening, from Britten as an eight-year old nipper to a 62-year old in the twilight of his life.

There are 16 song collections to hear – 5 with orchestral accompaniment, 10 with piano and 1 with guitar. I have avoided the use of the term ‘song cycle’ for now, as some of the collections do not necessarily follow a constant theme. More of that anon.

There are 45 choral works, with and without accompaniment, and there are 5 canticles – a form we’ll discover more about later – 3 church parables and 3 cantatas; Britten blurring the boundaries between sacred and secular.

There are no fewer than 13 operas, including Britten’s realization of John Gay’s A Beggar’s Opera and his ‘how to make an opera’, The Little Sweep. While we are on stage there is 1 ballet, hopefully 2 if an old BBC Music Magazine cover disc of Plymouth Town comes to light. Most intriguingly, there are 10 scores for film and radio.

There are 16 pieces purely for orchestra, with another 9 that feature a soloist. 9 more pieces are classed as scored for chamber or string orchestra, with another 3 for brass ensemble.

There are 24 examples of chamber music – more than expected – and these will hopefully include the recently discovered and very early Cello Sonata. There are a further 8 instrumental works, which include pieces for solo cello, harp, oboe, guitar and viola. Finally we have 3 pieces for two pianos, 6 for piano solo and just the 1 for organ.

All this completes a rich tapestry of work that implies Britten was incredibly flexible in the vocal and instrumental forces for which he was able to write, from the smallest of voices to the biggest of choirs, from the quietest instrument to the biggest orchestra.

We will start with the short setting of Longfellow, Beware!, from 1922, and almost certainly end with the fragmented Edith Sitwell setting Praise We Great Men, completed by Colin Matthews in 1977.

317 pieces of music, written by the same man over 54 years. I hope you enjoy the ride!

For exact dates and details on Britten’s music, I have been using the Britten Thematic Catalogue as reference. This incredibly comprehensive and impressive piece of work is near to full completion and will be published later this year.

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – an introduction and some numbers

  1. Adrian Smith says:

    This sounds very exciting. I’m looking forward to it. For as much as you think you are familiar with a composer’s works, there is always – always! – so much more to discover.

  2. Gary Carey says:

    A great idea and, as I am not familiar with Britten’s work whatsoever, warmly welcome the new experience ahead!

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