Listening to Britten – Twelve Variations on a Theme

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Twelve Variations on a Theme for piano (March – May 1931, Britten aged 17)

Dedication unknown
Duration 8’40”

Background and Critical Reception

The Variations are the first piano piece Britten wrote at the Royal College of Music, and would have been presented and probably played to his piano teacher Arthur Benjamin. Another posthumous publication, they were first performed on 22 June 1986 at the Aldeburgh Festival by Murray Perahia.

John Bridcut, author of the excellent Essential Britten, identifies them as a chance taken for ‘experimentation with a range of styles to produce resonances of Satie, Hindemith and Shostakovich’.


There is the characteristic student ‘need to please’ in Britten’s writing here, but there is also a sense of sticking a thumb up his nose at some of the rules laid down by strict teachers such as John Ireland, who had him fastidiously writing counterpoint. It must be said, however, that these were disciplines Britten grew to be grateful for later in life. Ireland did insisted Britten didn’t write ‘consecutive fifths’ for his part movement when writing in the style of Palestrina, but Britten litters the third variation with them here, the harmonies moving in parallel a lot. Ironically this is the passage that sounds most like the mature Britten, especially in the way it fades away.

The theme itself is quite polite, withdrawn and inward looking, but it is not long before Britten starts writing outwardly, with the outburst of the fourth variation a striking moment. The fifth (if I counted right!) is presumably where Bridcut hears the Satie references, the music withdrawn in a way that anticipates the last movement of the suite for piano Holiday Diary, Op.5. The sixth variation is possibly the Hindemith reference, while eventually Britten takes us through a rather stern and angular fugue, this time reminiscent of Shostakovich, before the piece suddenly peters out, as if the composer has lost interest.

Recordings used

Stephen Hough (piano) (Virgin Classics)

In what appears to be the only recording of the piece, made in 1990, Hough relishes the different sound worlds of each variation, lending strong characterisation to each one.

No links available

Also written in 1931: Bartók РPiano Concerto no.2

Next up: String Quartet in D major

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