Three Divertimenti for string quartet, also known as Go play, boy, play (13 February 1933 – 15 February 1936, Britten aged 22)
3 Burlesque (to Francis Barton)
Dedication Third movement to Francis Barton, a school friend at Lowestoft
Background and Critical Reception
The publication of Three Divertimenti represents the end of another project that was giving Britten a compositional block, after the Suite for violin and piano and Friday Afternoons. These pieces represent just a part of what the composer intended to be a suite of character portraits of school friends, called Go play, boy, play. The entry on the Britten Thematic Catalogue goes into more detail on the exact but rather complicated genesis of the piece.
Premiered at the Wigmore Hall, Britten said the three pieces were received with ‘sniggers and in a pretty cold silence’, and this reception played a big part in his decision not to publish the Divertimenti. They were next heard in an incomplete performance by the Gabrieli Quartet on BBC Radio 3 in 1982.
Source material on the composer does not discuss these pieces in much detail, though it is clear John Bridcut is a fan, welcoming the Burlesque as ‘demonstrating Britten’s facility for fast music…a musical sportsman at work’.
A bright, outdoors mini-suite that has become increasingly popular in concert performance, the Three Divertimenti have strong echoes of the Phantasy Quartet, Op.2, and in turn a stronger harmonic connection to Bridge.
It is difficult to see what provoked the sniggers at the Wigmore Hall, though, for each movement is melodically strong and enjoyably fresh. The open fifths of the first movement could be seen as flouting some of the rules of composition Britten learned from John Ireland, and they work well as a raucous fanfare. The waltz is more graceful, and a little nostalgic, but the final Burlesque moves quickly and has precursors of the String Quartet no.1 in its athleticism and virtuosity.
Interestingly Thomas Gould mentioned in his interview for this blog that the Divertimenti were hard to perform, the simplicity of their language difficult to gauge in relation to the rest of Britten’s output. As a concert opener for a string quartet, though, they offer plenty of fun and games, as the composer no doubt intended.
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Belcea String Quartet (EMI)
Maggini String Quartet (Naxos)
All three recordings enjoy the exuberance of the piece. The Belcea are perhaps the most youthful, which makes sense as they are the youngest quartet here, while the Endellion, in what appears to be the first recording made of the Divertimenti, have crisp and clear ensemble. All three quartets have recorded Britten’s output for string quartet in full, and all demonstrate a thorough understanding of his musical language.
The Belcea and Maggini recordings are collected as a playlist
Also written in 1936: Messiaen: Poèmes Pour Mi
Next up: Russian Funeral