Listening to Britten – Phantasy Quintet in F minor

(c) Ben Hogwood

Phantasy Quintet in F minor for two violins, two violas and cello (20 January – 25 February 1932, Britten aged 18)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Background and Critical Reception

The Phantasy Quintet was one of Britten’s most successful compositions at the Royal College of Music. Remarkably it was only one of two works that he had performed in the whole of his three years at the institution, and it won him the Cobbett Prize in 1932, given for chamber music written in the form of a one-movement fantasy. He won 18 guineas, which he spent on scores by Walton and Manuel de Falla.

It was also the first of Britten’s compositions to be broadcast by the BBC, in February 1933, but this led to a couple of lukewarm reviews. The Times thought the work ‘did not build up into a satisfying whole’ but was ‘very well played’. More recent opinion is divided. Paul Kildea calls the Phantasy ‘not a great piece’, with ‘motific ideas, which Britten explores somewhat obviously in the opening pages and spreads a little thinly at subsequent ones. Yet it has a central section of brooding melodiousness, which hints at the mature composer.

Again Britten is following a single movement model, condensing several movements into one in the manner of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no.1, a trend identified by Christopher Monk.


The Phantasy Quintet’s themes are less immediately distinctive, but the opening cello melody does stay with the listener after several listens. The richer texture of two violas yields an attractive sound, especially with Britten’s harmonies taking their natural lead from Bridge and Ireland. In his Britten biography Humphrey Carpenter pinpoints the ‘English lyricism’ of the work, which seems the most accurate description.

The overall impression is of a subtle warmth, with nothing too challenging on the ear, but some clever bringing together of harmonies from the tonic (F minor) and the dominant (C, on which the cello theme is based). This introduces a bit of uncertainty just beneath the surface, which is never fully resolved.

Recordings used
Endellion String Quartet with Nicholas Logie (viola) (EMI)
Ensemble Nymphéas (Cordes et Âmes-Classic)

The Ensemble Nymphéas version has a lot more bite to it, and the opening cello melody rings out more. The Endellion are more smooth structurally, bringing out Britten’s increasing subtleties of form and harmony.

The Ensemble Nymphéas version can be found here, while the Endellion Quartet version is not available on Spotify.

Also written in 1931: Rachmaninov – Piano Sonata no.2 in B flat minor, Op.36

Next up: Three Two-Part Songs

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