Listening to Britten – Rossini Suite (The Tocher)

Image (c) Royal Mail Film Archive

Rossini Suite (The Tocher) – Incidental music for boys’ voices, flute, oboe, two clarinets, two percussion and piano (15 – 18 July 1935, Britten aged 21)

1 Allegro brillante (arrangement of ‘Pas de soldats’, from Guillaume Tell, Act 3)
2 Allegretto (Soirées musicales no. 1, ‘La promessa’)
3 Allegretto (‘Pas de six’ from Guillaume Tell, Act I)
4 Bolero: Allegro moderato (Soirées musicales no. 5, ‘L’invito’)
5 Allegro con brio (Soirées musicales no. 8, ‘La Danza’)

Director Lotte Reiniger
Duration 12′

Audio clips

A clip from each of the five movements of the score can be heard on the NMC website, which also provides details of the Britten On Film disc from which they are taken.

Background and Critical Reception

The Tocher is a short, animated film by the German director Lette Reiniger, its aim to promote the Post Office Savings Bank – more of which can be read on the BFI website.

Alberto Cavalcanti, the resident sound expert of the GPO Film Unit and a friend of Britten’s, gave him the idea of supplying a suite of Rossini arrangements to soundtrack the film. This he did in a series of original settings that make use once again of the instrumental restrictions and a plethora of percussion, condensing the Rossini source material to fit the moving images.

Britten was so pleased with the results that the seed of thought for the full blown orchestral suite, Soirées musicales, was sown.

The music for The Tocher can now be found as part of the permanent exhibition at the Red House, where the film can also be seen.


This is something of a composer’s playground. Britten begins by taking the Pas de Soldats from Guillaume Tell, transposing it up a third and adding some ghoulish scoring, the rattling of the xylophone and snare drum bringing a macabre edge to proceedings, before a full blown flute cadenza leads to La Promessa, from the Soirées musicales, now transposed down a minor third and given the unusual addition of a boys’ choir vocalise. It proves to be strangely moving.

The deft arrangements continue with a version of the charming Pas de six, brilliantly orchestrated with a spikiness that recalls – or anticipates, even – the Shostakovich Jazz Suites. Then L’Invito casts its charming waltz spell, led by oboe, before another reedy arrangement, this time of La Danza, rounds the suite off in uproarious fashion, the childrens’ choir shouting at the tops of their voices.

Clearly Britten enjoyed setting these melodious originals, and gave himself maximum poetic licence to ham up the harmonies!

Recordings used

Choir of King Edward’s School, Birmingham, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)

Another winner from the NMC album, brilliantly catching the spiky humour of Britten’s arrangements, their bright timbres and the easy on the ear virtuosity.


A playlist of the Rossini originals, and their counterparts as arranged by Britten for the suite, can be found here

Also written in 1935: Fats Waller & His Rhythm – I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter

Next up: Friday Afternoons, Op.7

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One Response to Listening to Britten – Rossini Suite (The Tocher)

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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