Listening to Britten – Simple Symphony, Op.4

(c) Brian Hogwood

Simple Symphony, Op.4 for string orchestra or string quartet (23 Dec 1933 – 10 Feb 1934, Britten aged 20)

1 Boisterous Bourrée
2. Playful Pizzicato
3. Sentimental Sarabande
4. Frolicsome Finale

Dedication Audrey Alston (Mrs Lincolne Sutton) – Britten’s viola teacher in the 1920s
Duration 18′

Audio clips (all from the recording made by Britten himself, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra on Decca)

1 Boisterous Bourrée (English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten)

2 Playful Pizzicato

3 Sentimental Sarabande

4 Frolicsome Finale

Background and Critical Reception

Britten would always keep a very close link to his childhood throughout his composing life, and for the Simple Symphony he plundered his already substantial archive of themes. The already peerless Britten Thematic Catalogue reveals the sources of these in detail by clicking on each work here.

Michael Kennedy offers some characteristically perceptive thoughts on the piece. ‘How remarkable are the string textures in what is one of Britten’s first works to lie within the range and capability of amateurs as well as professionals’, he writes in his Britten biography. ‘This is engaging music in every sense, and deeper than perhaps Britten himself admitted’.


The Simple Symphony works so well because it blends the simplicity of Britten’s youthful themes with his ever-increasing knowledge of how to work with them. It therefore has the charm and innocence of youth running throughout, but when needed it has a bit of steel, glimpsed as the Boisterous Bourrée works out its ideas, and again at the climax points in the Sentimental Sarabande.

This is the work’s focal point, almost the combined duration of the other three movements, and it begins with heart melting string textures and melodies. The one afforded to the viola about three minutes in is a particularly good example. The Pizzicato Polka is enormous fun, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Barwick Green by Arthur Wood, used as the theme for the BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers.

As Kennedy says, this is arguably Britten’s first published work that can be performed by amateurs as well as professionals, the start of a long line of pieces that made him a composer for the community.

Musical enjoyment, pure and simple!

Recordings used
English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra / Iona Brown (Virgin)
I Musici (Philips)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
String Quartet version – Maggini String Quartet (Naxos)

The Simple Symphony is one of Britten’s most-travelled pieces, and it is intriguing to hear the sinuous textures of the I Musici and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recordings, both generating plenty of energy in the faster music.

Britten’s own recording is made with the beefy string section of the English Chamber Orchestra, and offsets its light-footed Pizzicato Polka with considerable emotional weight in the Sentimental Sarabande. It has remarkably good recorded sound, too. Steuart Bedford and Iona Brown present wholesome alternatives, in what is a strong cross-section of this work’s ample discography.

Meanwhile the Maggini Quartet more or less have the field to themselves in the quartet version, which they play with verve and obvious enjoyment.

The following playlist rounds up three recordings of the work, the orchestral version as done by the composer himself and Steuart Bedford, and the string quartet version as played by the Maggini Quartet.

Also written in 1934: Shostakovich – Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

Next up: Jubilate Deo in E flat major

This entry was posted in Chamber or string orchestra, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Simple Symphony, Op.4

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. kurtnemes says:

    Thank you for this. Simple Symphony continues to be one of my favorite pieces of any composers. It’s one I got my kids interested in when they were young along with Bartok’s Roumanian Dances. I just saw that latest documentary on Britten by Tony Palmer. Very powerful, and showed me there was a lot of Britten I’ve been missing. All the best.

  3. Pingback: Great Britten | Et pour quelques fariboles de plus...

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