An American Overture for orchestra (also known as An Occasional Overture, and formerly Op.27) (7 – 16 October 1941, Britten aged 27)
Dedication Artur Rodzinski
Background and Critical Reception
This work has a very confusing history. The New York Public Library unearthed a manuscript in 1972 with the title An occasional overture, in the composer’s hand. Yet when they told Britten of this he had completely forgotten the work’s existence, and could only confirm it was his when the evidence of his own handwriting was placed before him. Even then the work lay unperformed until 1983, when Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took it up – and publication duly followed in 1985. By then another work had the Occasional Overture label – Britten’s Op.38 – so this one was given the title An American Overture instead.
The work was a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra and their conductor Artur Rodzinski. It receives slight but insignificant coverage from Britten scholars, many drawing comparisons with the earlier Canadian Carnival overture, with which it shares a key (B flat major), similar melodies and structure.
An American Overture falls in the middle of what was for Britten a long period of inactivity, with a gap of three months between this and the previously published String Quartet no.1. This was while he and Pears waited for space on a boat so they could return to England.
Britten wrote a lot of music for orchestra while he was in North America. It is as if this was the time he felt bold enough to commit himself to larger forces, and once he had done so he caught the bug. On each occasion there are stylistic qualities that stand out, and in the case of the American Overture it is the influence of Copland that makes itself clear. This can often be found in the use of each end of the frequency scale – low and high notes – but with relatively little in between, and this is how Copland often created such an impressive sense of wide open space in his work.
An American Overture is definitely an outdoor work, and it has nearly as much appeal as its elder cousin Canadian Carnival. The piano gives a pleasing percussive bite to the off beat promptings of the orchestra, and as the music gathers itself there is an impressive scope to the setting of a tune that grows and grows, burrowing into your consciousness. The faster section in the middle, meanwhile, uses syncopations that could only belong in New York. It all makes for an effective model for a concert opener, if not wholly distinctive in Britten’s output.
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Of the two recordings I listened to, Rattle brings a greater dynamic contrast to the piece, starting very softly and relatively slowly, but both recordings are full of character and do the piece full justice. Hickox benefits from a greater perspective in the recording itself, which helps the broad orchestral colours make their mark.
Also written in 1941: Shostakovich – The Oath to the People’s Commissar
Next up: Scottish Ballad, Op.26