Listening to Britten – Alla marcia

Image: Red backed shrike, (c) Graham Catley, whose rather wonderful blog Pewit can be found here

Alla marcia for string quartet (February 1933, Britten aged 19)

Dedication not known
Duration 3′

Background and Critical Reception

The string quartet was part of the young Britten’s staple diet as a composer. Having already written the early examples in F major and D major, as well as a number of shorter movements such as the Quartettino, he turned his attention to a suite of character pieces set to bear the title Go play, boy play, lifted from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

In the event the suite was broken up rather, the Three Divertimenti of 1936 emerging to stand alone, but this single movement march would have served as the first movement.

A further influence on Britten’s thinking at the time of composition was the film Emil and the Detectives, which he had just seen and which left a considerable impression. The march was briefly earmarked as a candidate for part of an ‘Emil suite’.


This short movement starts with a jaunty solo on first violin, taking place over some po-faced pizzicato from the cello, which is almost a walking bass. It is unusually mischievous for Britten, but does then gather power as the music progresses.

Britten sounds ever more at ease with writing for string quartet, and although Alla Marcia is something of a trifle, it would make an ideal encore piece for a string quartet.

Recordings used
Sorrel String Quartet (Chandos)
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)

The Sorrel Quartet have a much more reverberant recording, which does occasionally get in the way of rhythmic clarity, but both versions are excellent.

The Sorrel Quartet recording can be found here

Also written in 1933: Richard Strauss – Arabella

Next up: A boy was born, Op.3

This entry was posted in Chamber music, Listening to Britten, String Quartet, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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