Listening to Britten – Elegy for solo viola

(c) Brian Hogwood

Elegy for solo viola (1 August 1930, Britten aged 16)

Dedication not known
Duration 7′

Background and Critical Reception

The Elegy appears not to have been given a title by Britten when it was composed, one day after he left Gresham’s. At this point his mind seems to have been in a state of flux, for while he was delighted to have returned from Lowestoft, he was missing Gresham’s, despite the trials he went through at the school.

This is picked up by John Bridcut, who goes on to note that ‘perhaps it is an exercise in school-sickness’. He thinks it was designed for Britten himself to play.


This is our first chance so far to hear Britten writing on a single line, and offers a very early pointer towards the Cello Suites of later years. Writing for his own instrument, the composer keeps well within himself, with long phrases that gradually build in intensity, and get higher in pitch. At this point the depth of feeling is greatest, the emotions more heart-on-sleeve, until the piece subsides again in to thoughtful quietness.

Despite this growth of intensity, the piece remains resolutely inward in its focus, and lacks a distinctive motif. This may explain why it is not performed more often.

Recordings used

Nobuko Imai (viola) (BIS)
Garfield Jackson (viola) (EMI)
Paul Coletti (viola) (Hyperion)

Coletti is passionate in his delivery of the second half in particular, and gives the phrases an expansive air – as does Garfield Jackson on EMI. Nobuko Imai, the first person to play the piece in public at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1984, is almost a whole minute quicker than Coletti and has a nice, silvery tone. Her version feels more unified.



Also written in 1930: Villa-Lobos – Bachianas brasileiras Nos. 1 & 2

Next up: Chamber Music V

This entry was posted in Chamber music, Listening to Britten, Solo instrument and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – Elegy for solo viola

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Two Portraits for strings | Good Morning Britten

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