Listening to Britten – String Quartet no.1 in D major, Op.25

(c) Brian Hogwood

String Quartet No.1 in D major, Op.25 for string quartet (July 1941)

1 Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo
2 Allegretto con slancio
3 Andante calmo
4 Molto vivace

Dedication Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (American music patron)
Duration 27′

Audio clips using the forthcoming recording from the Takács String Quartet. With thanks to Hyperion

1 Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo

2 Allegretto con slancio

3 Andante calmo

4 Molto vivace

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s first published string quartet represented a return to the medium after an absence of five years. The work was written quickly in response to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge, a close friend of Britten’s former teacher Frank Bridge, who ‘introduced’ his pupil by letter. The composer found himself in the garden shed of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, the pianists for whom he had written the Introduction & Rondo Burlesca and the Mazurka Elegiaca. He worked outside the house so he couldn’t hear them rehearsing.

Britten already intended to write a quartet for the Griller Quartet, but wartime developments prevented him from linking up with them until 1942, when they gave the work its UK premiere at the Wigmore Hall. The Coolidge Quartet were the work’s first performers in Los Angeles on 21st September 1941, and at the concert Britten received the Coolidge Medal for chamber music, bestowed upon him before he had even finished the commission!

Critical reaction to the quartet was largely strong, and the work is held in good regard by authorities on the composer, despite acknowledgement of a few formal quirks and minor shortcomings. The third movement is recognised as a forebear of the ‘moonlight’ music in Peter Grimes, while the cluster of high notes with which the work begins is also commended for its originality.

Michael Kennedy says that a ‘suspicion of the ‘cleverness’ of Britten’s early works…seems to have clung to this work more than to others of the period. In The Britten Companion, Philip Rupprecht points to the finale, where ‘the commanding presence is a sweeping melodic line given out in stirring unison. It is at such boldly direct moments, in fact, that one senses the stylistic change, a ‘new confidence in simplicity’, that signals the close of Britten’s American years’.


I can’t help but hear in this work the beginnings of Britten’s imminent return to Suffolk, a move he was beginning to plan with Pears – and it was around the time of completing the first string quartet that the pair rediscovered George Crabbe’s poetry in an obscure Los Angeles bookshop. Maybe the seeds of thought had already been planted in this music?

The opening lines for the violins and viola certainly portray to me the wind in the reeds around Snape and Aldeburgh, even the birds circling above. There is a timelessness here, as if the composer is frozen, taking in the scene from the ground.
Then the music switches abruptly to a vigorous hustle and bustle that recalls Beethoven’s quartets, the conversation between the instruments reaching frenzied levels, before Britten finds a compromise, the two very different moods co-existing in the same movement with surprising ease.

Beethoven reappears behind the energetic Scherzo, before the slow movement casts its nocturnal spell, a sequence of slowly moving chords clearly evocative of the moonlight. The last movement doesn’t seem to have a great deal of relation to the rest of the piece initially, but a lot of its figures sound again like birds chirping at each other until the long sweeping melodies take over. Then it becomes something of a display piece, with virtuosic swoops and runs, until a crowd pleasing unison finish.

The First String Quartet is a rather special piece that deserves a higher standing in Britten’s chamber output, and one that does seem to be paving the way both for a return home and a move to pastures new musically.

Recordings used
Allegri String Quartet (Decca)
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Belcea String Quartet (EMI)
Maggini String Quartet (Naxos)
Britten String Quartet (Collins)

The quartet enjoys a very strong recorded history, with all the above versions finding the mystery of its first and third movements, together with the energy of the second and fourth. Just out in front by a nose are the Allegri String Quartet, despite a slightly coarse older recording, though they are only available as part of Decca’s all-inclusive Complete Works edition. The Endellion and Britten versions are very fine and well recorded, while the Maggini and Belcea enjoy more opulent digital sound.


The Belcea, Britten and Maggini Quartet recordings are collected as a playlist for the first String Quartet, which also includes a recording made by the Brodsky Quartet for Challenge Classics.

Also written in 1941: Honegger – Symphony no.2

Next up: arrangement of Mahler: What The Wild Flowers Tell Me

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

1 Response to Listening to Britten – String Quartet no.1 in D major, Op.25

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – the American dream | Good Morning Britten

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