Farfield House, Gresham’s, Holt, 1929 (Benjamin Britten front left) – image courtesy of http://www.britten100.org
Rhapsody for string quartet in F major (28 January – 6 February 1929, Britten aged 15)
Dedication not known
Background and Critical Reception
With Britten now boarding at Gresham’s school, it is unfortunate the first piece we look at from there was written in the sanitorium, with Paul Kildea drawing attention to how ‘fever heightened, his imagination’. Despite its genesis early in 1929, and subsequent revision in the following weeks, the Rhapsody had to wait until 1985 for its first performance, and subsequent recordings have been few and far between – indeed, the Endellion String Quartet version used here appears to be the only one currently available.
In his booklet note for the EMI recording from the Endellion String Quartet, John Evans notes the influence of Frank Bridge in the construction and harmony of the piece, referring to the ‘framed structure that was to become characteristic of Britten’s single-movement forms’.
With Britten now having received over a year’s worth of lessons from Frank Bridge, it is perhaps not surprising that his music should reflect the older composer’s influence, and a lot of this music is reminiscent of the older composer’s Three Idylls for string quartet. Rhapsody is a self-contained piece, but although its title implies freedom of approach in composition it is actually tightly constructed, with several linking sections. The freedom is to be found in the music itself, which doesn’t give its harmonic secrets away easily. The scoring is relatively thick, the writing warm and faintly exotic in a way that suggests Ravel.
The piece sets out its stall in an attractive discourse, the quartet closely following each other’s movements and melodic phrases, and the viola – first instrument of both pupil and master – assumes greater importance for the attractive second theme. It is fascinating to hear Britten absorbing the approach of his composer, but there are little touches here, such as the pause towards the end, that confirm he is still thinking with his own mind. By no means as original in thought as the Quatre chansons françaises, Rhapsody is nonetheless a work still looking forward in its musical language. Still a precocious work for a fifteen-year old to be writing!
Endellion String Quartet (world premiere recording) (EMI) – not available on Spotify
A short preview of the Rhapsody can be found on the All Music website
Also written in 1929: Walton – Viola Concerto
Next up: Lilian