Listening to Britten – Temporal variations

John Piper: Beach with starfish, 1933-4
(c) The Piper Estate

Temporal variations for oboe and piano (15 August – 12 December 1936, Britten aged 23)

1 Theme
2 Oration
3 March
4 Exercises
5 Commination
6 Chorale
7 Waltz
8 Polka
9 Resolution

Dedication Montagu Slater – writer who Britten met at the GPO film unit. Later the librettist for Peter Grimes
Duration 14’30”

Audio clips
Heinz Holliger (oboe), András Schiff (piano) – with kind permission of Decca Classics

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s contribution to the oboe repertoire is a considerable one, with four pieces that are central to the instrument’s chamber music repertoire in the 20th century. The Temporal variations is now an established part of that quartet, though once again it is a work from the mid-1930s that did not see publication in its composer’s lifetime. John Bridcut speculates on the reasons for this, concluding that Britten may have been intending to revisit it for publication, but simply did not get round to it.

The Temporal variations were first performed in the Wigmore Hall, three days after composition, and on hearing them the music critic of the Telegraph perceptively declared that Britten was ‘a harlequin ‘.

His words were well-chosen, for the variations show a range of moods and techniques for the instrument, and hint at Britten’s own mastery of the variations form as his compositional prowess grew. Bridcut quite rightly sees these as laying the foundations for the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which followed less than a year later, especially in the way Britten names each variation.

The variations lay unperformed until 1980, but since then have assumed a place in the repertoire – and Colin Matthews has boosted their profile still further by arranging them for oboe and orchestra. Steuart Bedford, one of Britten’s closest allies late in life, oversaw a recording of this version for Collins Classics.


Britten’s musical identity continues to grow. From the first bars it is clear this music is by him, for the gruff piano comments on the oboe theme could not be by anyone else.

As John Bridcut notes the theme seems unwieldy to start with, the same phrase repeated several times, but Britten passes it through all sorts of moods to make a successful blend of light and shade, soft and sharp.

These moods include a strutting Polka, a withdrawn Chorale and a bold, confrontational Oration and Commination (which means denunciation). In these sections the piano becomes almost embroiled in a fight against the oboe. The final variation (Resolution) is surprisingly difficult to listen to, though is incredibly skilful too – difficult because it just refuses to resolve right until the end! It’s a very clever device but can set the teeth on edge in a very odd way.

It is easy to see though why this piece has become a favourite in the oboists’ repertoire, for it allows the showcase of a number of techniques while staying extremely musical. The Matthews arrangement effectively realises Britten’s colours for full orchestra, showing just how expansive some of this music is.

Recordings used

Sarah Francis (oboe), Michael Dussek (piano) (Hyperion)
Heinz Holliger (oboe), András Schiff (piano) (Philips, now part of Decca set)
Hansjörg Schellenberger (oboe), Ralf Koenen (Campanella Musica)

Colin Matthews arrangement – Nicholas Daniel, Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)

Excellent versions from both Holliger and Sarah Francis, though Holliger just has the extra authority. Francis and Dussek have the advantage of their recording spread across a track for each variation, rather than the Decca ‘one for all’ approach. Schellenberger and Koenen have a curious ‘legato’ start to the theme and a slightly dry recorded sound.

In the arrangement Nicholas Daniel gives a superb performance, helped by excellent playing from the strings of the Northern Sinfonia, whose Chorale is especially profound.


This playlist consists of two recordings, the only available version of the original (Schellenberger and Koenen) and the Colin Matthews arrangement.

Also written in 1936: Barber – Symphony no.1

Next up: The Way To The Sea

This entry was posted in Chamber music, Listening to Britten and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – Temporal variations

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op.49 | Good Morning Britten

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