Listening to Britten – Occasional Overture


The BBC Third Programme logo, courtesy of Logopedia

Occasional Overture for orchestra, Op.38 (July – 14 September 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication The Third Programme
Duration 8′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten wrote his Occasional Overture for the launch of the Third Programme, which took place on 29 September 1946.
Humphrey Carpenter’s extremely entertaining biography of what became BBC Radio 3, The Envy of the World, takes up the story. ‘The Third’s first symphony concert was a broadcast from the BBC Maida Vale orchestral studio by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The first item was the national anthem, then came a Festival Overture, commissioned for the occasion from the thirty-two-year-old Benjamin Britten.

Etienne Amyot (the Third Programme’s first planner) had given Britten and his publisher, Erwin Stein of Boosey & Hawkes, dinner the previous summer, to persuade him to write it. ‘It was a sticky dinner’, he reported. ‘The first half…was a tremendous attack against the BBC by Britten which threatened at moments to become quite hysterical. He said he had no faith in the new programme, and that we might for a week or two spend a lot of money and time in trying to get the things we wanted, the service…would disintegrate by Christmas and be indistinguishable from either A or B (i.e. Light or Home). But then he changed his manner and agreed to write the piece.

In the same book, Carpenter dismisses the overture as ‘a rather lacklustre piece’. John Bridcut brands it as ‘rather more English’ than the American Overture, ‘laden with trills to launch the BBC’s Third Programme. Soon after, he withdrew the piece. Evidently he remembered it, but not with much pleasure’.

Michael Oliver is far more complimentary. ‘It begins with almost pompous ceremony, develops a folk-like lyrical vein and then effectively combines the two before a genially noisy conclusion. It is not a piece of which he need have been so ashamed as to suppress it.’

Thoughts

The Occasional Overture has a certain celebratory bluster that would almost certainly have done the trick for Third Programme listeners on that first night in 1946, and given that Britten makes good use of the large orchestra it certainly would have tested out the frequency response of the wireless!

The musical material is quite disparate, so it doesn’t hang together as strongly as much of Britten’s work does, but it is a good orchestral work out with some attractive moments. It ends in a celebratory vein, arriving in C major with something of a Waltonian air.

There are fleeting hints of other composers – it sounds mostly continental, with touches of Stravinsky, Copland and even Bartók, suggesting that Britten’s orchestral music at least was still partly under the influence of his American stay.

It is a relative mystery as to why Britten suppressed the piece after it had been broadcast, but perhaps he was still harbouring those negative feelings towards the BBC. A shame, for this is an effective if slightly inconsistent concert opener, whose final flourish will surely guarantee applause.

Recordings used

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
London Symphony Orchestra / Steuart Bedford

Only the two recordings of the Occasional Overture appear to exist, which is somewhat mystifying. Thankfully both are good ones, Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO particularly enjoying the final flourishes and Steuart Bedford conducting the LSO in a similarly enthusiastic account.

Spotify

Both recordings are on Spotify. Rattle can be heard here, part of the fine EMI double disc set Rattle conducts Britten, while Steuart Bedford’s version with the LSO ishere

Also written in 1946: Hartmann – Symphony No. 2, ‘Adagio’

Next up: Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria

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