Listening to Britten – Soirées musicales, Op.9

(c) Brian Hogwood

Soirées musicales, Op.9 – Suite of five movements from Rossini for orchestra (4 December 1935 – 24 August 1936, Britten aged 22)

1 March (arrangement of ‘Pas de soldats’, from Guillaume Tell, Act 3)
2 Canzonetta (Soirées musicales no. 1, ‘La promessa’)
3 Tirolese (Soirées musicales, no. 6, ‘La pastorella dell’Alpi’)
4 Bolero (Soirées musicales no. 5, ‘L’invito’)
5 Tarantella (3 Choeurs religieux, no. 3, ‘La charité’)

Dedication Alberto Cavalcanti – director and producer at the GPO film unit
Duration 10′

Audio clips

1. March

2. Canzonetta

3. Tirolese

4. Bolero

5. Tarantella

Background and Critical Reception

For Soirées musicales, Britten returned to his Rossini suite of July 1935, which was used for the film The Tocher, drawing on it for inspiration for a quickfire set of five movements for orchestra. The short suite is dedicated to the GPO film director and producer Alberto Cavalcanti, for his initial idea behind the suite.

John Bridcut acknowledges the effectiveness of these pieces but expresses a preference for the Rossini Suite, on account of its reduced and more quirky instrumentation. However Britten’s expansion of the material for orchestra is more than vindicated by the regular performances this suite receives. The entry for the work on the website of his publishers Boosey & Hawkes confirms this, praising the suite as a ‘substantial and exciting addition’ to any children’s or pops concert.

Soirées musicales was joined in 1941 by a companion suite, Matinées musicales, which also took Rossini themes as its inspiration.


After the coruscating Our Hunting Fathers, this is a welcome bit of frivolous fun, a great way of spending ten minutes.

It also proved to be a good exercise in orchestration for Britten, who often brings Rossini’s originals a new perspective with some inventive writing, although as John Bridcut points out the Rossini Suite itself is perhaps even more witty and inventive.

Let’s not do this too much of a disservice though, for the March and Tarantella in particular are terrific fun, the orchestra effectively invited to play with all the windows open. The Canzonetta is a nice contrast, too, lyrical and tender, with Britten enjoying an unusually lush orchestral canvas. Some nice orchestral touches by the composer include the castanets of the Bolero.

Recordings used

National Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Bonynge (Decca)
English Chamber Orchestra / Sir Alexander Gibson (EMI)
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra / Okko Kamu (Ondine)

Given its popularity it is perhaps surprising that Soirées musicales has a rather sparse discography – but then the two principal recordings are extremely good.

Richard Bonynge takes to the score like a duck to water, bringing his aptitude for stage and ballet music to infuse a performance of high spirits and good humour. Sir Alexander Gibson is equally charming for EMI, enjoying the bounteous selection of melodies. Okko Kamu’s recording for Ondine, coupled with the Matinées musicales and Ralf Gothoni playing the Piano Concerto, is very light, though a bit too slow for comfort in the Canzonetta.


A playlist of the Rossini originals, their counterparts as arranged by Britten for the film, and the Soirées musicales themselves (the Okko Kamu version) can all be found here

Also written in 1936: Varèse – Density 21.5

Next up: Two Ballads

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