Russian Funeral – known also by Britten as War and death, an impression for brass orchestra – for 4 horns (‘ad lib’), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba and percussion (24 February – 2 March 1936, Britten aged 22)
Dedication not known
A clip from the recording made by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble:
Background and Critical Reception
Russian Funeral is the first work we encounter that explicitly lays Britten’s pacifist beliefs on the table, expressing his increasingly worried state about the political climate in Europe. It is also one of very few works that he wrote for brass ensemble, though in larger scale performances we find that he was a very skilled writer for brass instruments.
This straight-faced utterance was written for the London Labour Choral Union, receiving its first performance in Westminster Theatre from the South London Brass Orchestra on 8 March 1936, under the baton of fellow-composer Alan Bush. It then lay unpublished in Britten’s lifetime, dormant until resurrected in the early 1980s. Britten was learning the first piano concerto of Shostakovich at the time, which may well explain the close stylistic parallels, and also his choice of source material, as the march is based on a Russian funeral melody that Shostakovich later used in his Symphony no.11.
The march is a very sombre affair, the polar opposite of the Three Divertimenti, and it crouches heavily under the shadow of Mahler. The opening phrase sounds like a development of some of the material from the opening March of Mahler’s Symphony no.3, where the trombones horns can often be found in the depths.
With Britten’s pacifist beliefs now channeled into music there is latent anger, which increasingly makes itself known as the piece progresses. The sardonic middle section is where the parallels with Shostakovich become most pronounced, while the end section, moving down a tone from the opening to B flat minor, benefits from the weighty punch of the percussion.
A curious and fiercely expressive piece, revealing a much darker side to the composer that we haven’t glimpsed for a while in the course of the listening.
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (Decca)
Rattle’s performance is the more symphonic one, and is imaginatively coupled on CD with Shostakovich’s Symphony no.4. It also benefits from superior digital sound. Yet the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble somehow seem more sympathetic to Britten’s plight, and give him at least a minute longer to express his thoughts. Rattle feels more like an extension of Mahler.
Rattle’s version, coupled with a powerful interpretation of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.4 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is the fourth track of the disc here. A third version, by the London Collegiate Brass on CRD, can be heard here
Also written in 1936: Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Next up: Two Lullabies