Listening to Britten – Prelude and Fugue, Op.29


(c) Brian Hogwood

Prelude and Fugue for 18-part string orchestra, Op.29 (May 1943, Britten aged 29)

Dedication To Boyd Neel and his orchestra, on the occasion of their 10th birthday, 23 June 1943
Duration 9′

Audio clip: using Britten’s own recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. With thanks to Decca.

Background and Critical Reception

The Prelude and Fugue was a present for the conductor Boyd Neel and his Orchestra, to mark their 10th birthday. Neel it was who conducted the premiere of the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, and whose orchestra Britten used in his first ever recording as a conductor, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Neel is often thought of as resurrecting the chamber orchestra in England.

Due to the orchestra’s reduced personnel in the middle of the Second World War, Britten decided to write a piece that would include each of the players individually. His solution was an intricate construction, an 18-part fugue, with a part for each solo player.

Humphrey Carpenter reports on how he worked on this while suffering bouts of depression in his recovery from illness. ‘It opens so tensely’, Carpenter describes, ‘with violent tonal clashes between lower and upper strings, that it evokes the hell-fire fears of the Serenade.

Thoughts

It is unfortunate that the Prelude and Fugue suffers comparative neglect when compared with Britten’s more popular (and technically a little easier!) works for string orchestra, the Simple Symphony and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

In no way is that down to its quality, for this is a very finely constructed work, one that shows Britten has now reached the very top of his game when writing for stringed instruments. To be able to contemplate an eighteen-part fugue is something pretty extraordinary, particularly when it unfolds with the inevitability it does here.

Underneath the surface, the work appears to be a bridging point. The opening notes are very similar in mood and pitch that those that begin the String Quartet no.1, if perhaps more austere. This increasing sense of unease and restlessness looks forward directly to Peter Grimes, which Britten was working on at the time.

When Britten shies away from a crowd pleasing finish and returns to those haunting opening notes it is a sharp emotional check, and although the piece does end positively it does so under something of a cloud, the opening note cluster still uppermost in the mind. It is another piece to unwittingly evoke the wind in the reeds around Snape – where Britten had once again taken up residency – and it is ultimately unsettled, an indication of things to come.

Recordings used

English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra / Iona Brown (Virgin Classics)
Bournemouth Sinfonietta / Ronald Thomas (Chandos)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Norman del Mar (EMI)

There are relatively few versions of the Prelude and Fugue on disc, certainly when compared to its more famous siblings in Britten’s output for string orchestra. Its technical and ensemble demands are considerable, but are largely met in this quartet of recordings.

Iona Brown and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra are the most incisive, Britten and the ECO are the most characterful, Ronald Thomas and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta up close and personal, while for sheer muscle the Royal Philharmonic – who seem to be three or four instruments per part – cannot be beaten.

Spotify

The Prelude and Fugue is well served on Spotify. This playlist brings together Britten’s own recording with the English Chamber Orchestra, an intriguing recording by the Lucerne Festival Strings, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, the versions by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Norman del Mar, Ronald Thomas and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford.

Also written in 1943: Hindemith – Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber

Next up: Not all my torments can your pity move

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