Listening to Britten – Canadian Carnival, Op.19

Night time in Vancouver (c) Ben Hogwood

Canadian Carnival, Op.19 for orchestra (known initially by the composer as Kermesse Canadienne (November – 10 December 1939, Britten aged 26)

Dedication not known
Duration 13′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s stay in North America was becoming an increasingly productive one, his musical creativity fired by a new environment and new-found happiness with Peter Pears. Yet there were still some darker undercurrents to their stay, mostly war-related, and eventually a gathering problem of homesickness. A commission from Sir Robert Mayer, Canadian Carnival takes account of Britten’s surroundings by setting four French-Canadian folksongs, in doing so demonstrating his orchestral prowess, following Mahler in his use of small selective groups.

Canadian Carnival, on the face of it, seems lighthearted enough, and Michael Oliver sees it as a ‘relaxation from the Violin Concerto‘. It is framed by an offstage trumpet fanfare, which Michael Kennedy sees as a pointer to the use of the horn in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. He also highlights the influence of Copland, who used fanfares effectively in his music of course, and the continuing Mahlerian thread, drawing a parallel to the fanfare in the first movement of the Symphony no.5.

Donald Mitchell probes deeper, noting it to be ‘a more serious piece than it appears, culminating in a disturbing setting of ‘Alouette’ which was surely provoked by the sadistic words of this disingenuous children’s song’.

The first performance took place in Bristol in 1940, and was broadcast on the BBC, but the first public performance was not until 1945, where it was conducted by the composer.


To fully appreciate Canadian Carnival you need a quiet listening environment. That is because Britten explores some very quiet dynamics at the start and end of this attractive overture, from the offstage trumpet, with glittering cymbal accompaniment, to the full orchestra that eventually powers out the main tune. This profile bears a few similarities to Prokofiev’s music for the film Lieutenant Kijé, written five years previously.

The piece locks into a quickstep march, and it sounds like the composer is enjoying playing with his source material. Yet there is a stop-start element here that suggests not everything is as it should be, supporting Donald Mitchell’s view of the piece, and when the ‘Alouette’ quotation arrives it is ghostly and remote, a looking back to the double-edged mood of the third song of Quatre chansons francaises.

Canadian Carnival would make an effective concert opener, if only more orchestras would plan it! It is a clever and highly melodic blend of writing for full orchestra and small groups, assembled as an attractive whole.

Recordings used

English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)

Rattle’s version offers the greater contrast, due to the hefty full orchestral sound the CBSO can produce, but both recordings are colourful performances. Bedford it is who explores the chamber textures a little more effectively.


The ECO / Bedford recording can be found here, while Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation, part of the double disc set Rattle conducts Britten, is here

Also written in 1939: Bartók – Divertimento for strings

Next up: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20

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1 Response to Listening to Britten – Canadian Carnival, Op.19

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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