Listening to Britten – Plymouth Town

(c)Ben Hogwood

Plymouth Town – ballet for small orchestra (12 August – 22 November 1931, Britten aged 17)

Dedication not known
Duration 26′

Background and Critical Reception

Plymouth Town is Britten’s first stage work – and marks a watershed for the young composer on several levels.

It is his most significant piece for orchestra alone to date, the young composer taking up a scenario offered to him by the folklorist Violet Alford. Her story concerns a young man reaching shore at Plymouth but succumbing to temptation soon after his arrival. He falls to a local woman at the height of a night out drinking, losing both his wallet and his innocence as the story progresses, but some of the women return him to the ship a little older but much wiser! As several Britten scholars and journalists point out, this is the first instance of a theme that will now occupy many a Britten work between now and the end of his life.

Stephen Pritchard wrote this excellent piece for the Observer in 2004, just after the work’s world premiere, giving Plymouth Town context and a first review. Since then both John Bridcut and Christopher Monk have recognised the work’s prowess, and all three writers see the work as something of a germination point for Peter Grimes.

Ballet was beginning something of a renaissance in English music at the time, and Vaughan Williams, one of Britten’s guardians at the Royal College of Music, had completed his stage work Job the year before this. In addition Britten was captivated by both Stravinsky works Petrushka and Symphony of Psalms, and echoes of the former can be heard at a number of points in the score.


On hearing the first solely orchestral piece to crop up in Listening To Britten, it is fascinating to note how the composer’s style is moving on apace. Now the hints of his mature style are getting much more substantial, and there is a greater dramatic tension in the writing, a sense of the orchestra beginning to be stretched as Britten makes more technical and textural demands on them.

There are several moments in Plymouth Town that send shivers down the spine. The atmospheric opening, his first real evocation of the sea, is the first, a quiet but ominous procession on percussion and lower strings setting the scene in a slow march as the ship comes in to port. At just after 4’30” in the recording used there is a bittersweet melody for divided violins, a more feminine moment as Britten portrays the girls, but again with a slight chill in the air. This frisson returns with greater intensity at just after 11’30”, with tremolando violins and sharp muted trumpets cutting the texture.

There is another fugue – but this time there is more drama than academic accomplishment, leading up to a boozy sounding brass passage at around 15’15”. This is where drink and debauchery take their toll on the music, which becomes chaotic, before the girls take the man back to the boat in a serene passage for divided strings, and the slow processional returns once more. These outer sections bear the influence of Walton, whose Viola Concerto Britten had heard by the time Plymouth Town was complete.

Overall, a fascinating piece, not exactly free of structural questions but one that gives strong clues to Britten’s maturity as a dramatic composer.

Recordings used
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Grant Llewellyn (world premiere recording) (BBC Music Magazine, soon to be released on Decca)

An excellent performance, responding well to Britten’s characterisation and ensuring that what is a fairly flimsy plot does not lose its appeal, even over an unbroken span of music that lasts nearly half an hour.

Not yet available

Also written in 1931: Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major

Next up: Phantasy String Quintet in F minor

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