Listening to Britten – String Quartet in D major


(c) Brian Hogwood

String Quartet in D major (8 May – 2 June 1931, Britten aged 17)

1 Allegro maestoso
2 Lento ed espressivo
3 Allegro giocoso

Dedication not known
Duration 19′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten returns to the string quartet for a three-movement work that won the approval of his notoriously critical composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, John Ireland, and his piano teacher, Arthur Benjamin.

Frank Bridge, his long standing and more influential teacher, liked the work too but said it was ‘too vocal’ – a possible symptom of Britten’s rigorous studies with Ireland and his singing with the English Madrigal Society. The piece was given a run through by the Stratton Quartet but was not performed until the composer had revised it in 1974, making a substantial cut in the last movement as well as more minor amendments.

Paul Kildea talks of how the work is ‘infused with the language of the madrigals he was then singing and studying, finishing off with a fugal treatment of the movement’s opening theme’. Kildea is regarding the piece as a single movement rather than three, and in this respect it represents the start of an approach by Britten that was to compress his music as the compositional technique became more skilled. Christopher Monk also notes how the added note harmonies beloved of composers at the college can often get in the way of the work’s overall structure.

Arnold Whittall goes further in his analysis of Britten’s structural workings as part of his fascinating book, The Music of Britten and Tippett – Studies in Themes and Techniques, which is a lot less dry than it sounds! He highlights especially the ’rounding off’ of the last movement, with its emphatic unison melody back in D, which brings the work full circle in a manner he compares to Elgar’s Symphony no.1.

Thoughts

There is a greater fluency to this work than Britten’s previous String Quartet in F major, though as Monk notes it does feel a little bit stretched out at times, when the musical material goes on something of a diversion in the middle of the outer movements.

Again the viola assumes greater importance, with a florid theme just over two minutes in to the first movement. Just over five minutes in, however, there is an extraordinary moment, where the violin starts calling like a distant bird – to my ears the first vivid musical evocation of Suffolk that we have yet heard in Britten’s music. It is a striking change in texture, the music literally going cold on the page.

The start of the second movement melts the heart more, rather like one of Bridge’s 3 Idylls, and sets a subdued mood that continues right to the excited chatter of the start of the third movement. The ’rounding off’ statement that Monk and Whittall speak of brings everything together, so that the meandering harmonies, which sometimes threaten to blur the focus of the piece, are made much more meaningful.

Recordings used
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Britten String Quartet (Collins)
Emperor Quartet (BIS)

The Endellion feels the most natural of the three performances, and judges the speed of each movement best, for the Britten Quartet are rather drawn out in their slow speed choice for the first movement, despite its closer adherence to the composer’s ‘maestoso’ marking. The Emperor Quartet give a fine performance too, with a softly rendered slow movement as its emotional centre.

Spotify
The Endellion Quartet version is not available on Spotify, but a fine performance from the Emperor Quartet can be heard here, starting from track eleven.

Also written in 1931: Walton – Belshazzar’s Feast

Next up: Two Psalms

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