Listening to Britten – Clarinet Concerto (unfinished)

The Chrysler Building, New York (c) Ben Hogwood

Clarinet Concerto (unfinished), formerly Op.28 (November / December 1941 – ca March 1942, Britten aged 28)

1 Molto allegro
2 Vivace (reworking by Colin Matthews of the Mazurka Elegiaca, Op.23 no.2
3 Passacaglia (reworking by Colin Matthews of material for the Sonata for Orchestra)

Dedication not known
Duration 32′


Three one-minute clips, one from each movement, can be found on the NMC website and their page for the Unknown Britten album.

Background and Critical Reception

The clarinetist Benny Goodman commissioned a large number of works from leading classical composers, including Stravinsky, Copland, Bartók and Bernstein – but Britten was one of the first to witness his blossoming talent in classical repertoire, having witnessed him in a special performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Towards the end of Britten’s stay in the US he reached an agreement with Goodman for a clarinet concerto, and was working on it when he and Pears set sail to return to England.

Unfortunately the incomplete score was impounded as Britten and Pears passed through customs on their way out of the US in March 1942, as officers were suspicious of its potential for carrying code in wartime! A combination of that and the distance between Britten and Goodman meant the piece was left unfinished, save for the first movement sketches.

Colin Matthews, however, has made a performing version of the first movement, and expanded the work into a concerto with an orchestration of the two-piano piece Mazurka Elegiaca for the slow movement, and an expansion on a 100 bar fragment of the unfinished Sonata for Orchestra. Philip Reed gives characteristically informed booklet notes on the piece in NMC’s recording of the piece, its first, made in 2008 with Michael Collins as soloist.


Britten’s only music for a solo wind instrument and orchestra gets off to a lively start, with some athletics required from his soloist as they play against spiky trumpets and timpani, with characteristically inventive touches in the orchestration. The musical language is understandably a lot less jazzy than Copland and Stravinsky in their concertos, but the influence of the orchestral pieces of both carries through.

Colin Matthews has done a tremendous job in the performing version, and the Mazurka elegiaca makes an ideal slow movement, with its theme – which has a similar profile to that of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, incidentally – the perfect fit around the fraught uncertainty in the middle.

The last movement feels a bit more fragmented but is still an effective signing off, with some perky writing for the clarinet and very Britten-esque interventions from the orchestra.

Recordings used

Michael Collins, Northern Sinfonia / Thomas Zehetmair

Michael Collins is the only person to have recorded the piece so far – but unlikely to be the last, for he makes a very good case for it here and plays superbly. Watch out for an interview with him on this blog soon, for he will be performing the fragment at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 27th September.


The three movements are the last three tracks on NMC’s Unknown Britten album.

Also written in 1942: Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man

Next up: Wild with passion

This entry was posted in Listening to Britten, Orchestral, Soloist with orchestra, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – Clarinet Concerto (unfinished)

  1. Thank you for this piece recent addition to the repertoire.
    We’re looking forward to exploring it and performing it at our 7 December 2013 concert at St George’s Bristol (with Nicholas Shipman, clarinet) – details oat our website!

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