Listening to Britten – Three Character Pieces


(c) Brian Hogwood

Three Character Pieces for piano (16 September – 27 December 1930, Britten aged 17)

1 John
2 Daphne
3 Michael

Dedication not explicitly stated
Duration 7′

Background and Critical Reception

A collection of three short portraits of friends, Three Character Pieces portrays John Boyd, the elder nephew of Britten’s next-door neighbour in Lowestoft, then Daphne Black, the daughter of a tennis partner, and finally Michael Tyler, a friend.

In the latter piece John Bridcut notes Britten quoting a piece by his teacher, John Ireland – the piano piece Ragamuffin. He also notes the pieces are portraits rather than dedications.

In his recently released Britten biography Paul Kildea suggests the first piece is reminiscent of Scriabin, the next two Ravel, and draws a parallel to the Enigma Variations of Elgar, whose principle Britten seems to have borrowed, if not the music. He also notes the development of the last couple of years, ‘from a cosseted, precious boy, with hazy notions of his voice as a composer and future as a pianist, into an adolescent of startling achievement’.

Thoughts

Kildea’s enthusiastic references for the Three Character Pieces do seem a little overblown. That is not to say the music lacks substance or descriptive power, but the three pieces are no less descriptive than the Two Portraits for strings, for example.

On the basis of the pieces, John Boyd is quite a studious sort with an occasional glint in his eye, while Daphne is more of a dreamer, thinking lyrical thoughts from afar. Michael Tyler, though, is more ebullient, represented by quick flurries of notes from the start, in figurations that Britten himself found nigh impossible to play, before the suggestion of a stern side to his character with a frowning countenance to the left hand line.

Recordings used

Stephen Hough (piano) (Virgin Classics)

Hough’s performances are very clear, the parallels with Ravel thrown into greater relief.

Spotify
Daphne, the only one of the three pieces available on Spotify.

Also written in 1930: Bantock – Oriental Rhapsody

Next up: Christ’s Nativity

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