String Quartet in F major (2-11 April 1928, Britten aged 14)
1 Allegro vivace e con brio
3 Allegro vivace
4 Allegro molto
Dedication not known
Background and Critical Reception
We skip a year and a bit from our last encounter with Britten, the song Lucy. The F major quartet was written in April 1928, but the work was not properly published until 1995, which probably explains why it has only been recorded once so far. Philip Reed’s booklet note for this disc confirms the composer’s fluency, for he wrote the piece in just under a week.
John Bridcut goes on to confirm that at the time of writing Britten was given a score of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op.18/6. This might explain the energy the two pieces share. This is the first work we are listening to that was written under the supervision of Frank Bridge.
There are some similarities between this work and the Beethoven, and not just through choice of key, which is the (until now) almost ubiquitous F major. Reed notes also how the discipline in the structure of the piece is obtained from Bridge, but there are echoes of Dvořák too in the bright opening movement. Britten assigns the first theme to ‘his’ instrument, the viola, and bases it squarely on the F major triad.
To me, this is the sound of a young composer eager to impress his teacher, especially in the way he carries out the development of the first movement theme, and in the application of formal technique to the scherzo.
In the first movement an almost unhealthy obsession develops with the main theme, but there is a clear compositional process at work rather than mere repetition, while the scherzo’s insistence on moving to another key reflects a knowledge of Beethoven’s use of the form.
There are, though, a couple of instances where Britten deliberately flouts convention. The quartet’s ending in F minor is a curiosity, unexpected and illogical. It reflects the early song Beware! in this sense, but its move to the minor is almost a thumbs down to normal ways of working, and doubtless raised an eyebrow from his teacher. The slow movement is also odd, and feels completely out of place in the company of the other three. By no means substandard, it is musically unrelated and ambiguous, a mysterious cloud on the face of the general positivity of the other three.
What is also clear here is Britten’s aptitude composing for string instruments, techniques doubtlessly helped by Bridge and by the experience built by a great raft of unpublished (and unrecorded) works written in 1927, which include his first attempt at a symphony.
The step forward from his songs of 1926 is considerable, for this is an impressively wrought first attempt at a large structure, even though its curiosities and debts mean Britten’s own style is not yet brought to the fore.
Sorrel String Quartet (world premiere recording) (Chandos)
The Sorrel Quartet capture Britten’s youthful enthusiasm and eagerness, and also the oddly mysterious nature of the slow movement. Occasionally their ensemble is a little ragged, but it is a small price to pay for a reading that pushes forward with impressive momentum, showing off the fluency of the young composer’s ideas.
Also written in 1928: Prokofiev – Symphony no.3
Next up: Dans Le Bois