Stratton – Incidental music (pre 31 October 1949, Britten aged 35)
Text Ronald Duncan
Clips from the only known recording of Stratton can be heard over at the Allmusic website
Background and Critical Reception
Britten collaborated with Ronald Duncan once again for his very last piece of incidental music, of which very little is known. The score is lost, so the forces for which Stratton was composed are not known – but one recording remains. Conducted by Britten himself, it is described by the issuing record label, Pearl, as ‘thirteen pieces without title, running continuously’.
In his booklet note for the recording, Paul Campion notes the work was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in October 1949. ‘It was not a critical success’, he recounts. ‘It is a tragic story. He (Duncan) takes the family of the Strattons and shows what happens when the father, a judge – Clive Brook – murders his son and makes love to his daughter-in-law’.
This plot indicates a parallel work to The Rape of Lucretia, with tragedy at the forefront. Britten’s score, says Campion, has ‘sombre music to underline the more morbid passages’. John Bridcut includes it in his Essential Britten publication, describing the score as ‘having an almost relentlessly grim tread, to match the dark nature of the play’.
The recording is made available thanks to the Earl of Harewood, who offered his set of pressings for Britten’s own recording and these were taken up by Pearl.
As Bridcut notes, this is a score of almost unremitting darkness. The slow, ominous tread of the bass drum and timpani as they support twisted woodwind and horn lines in the opening number is a sign of things to come, an indication that the music of Shostakovich and Mahler is currently to the forefront of Britten’s mind.
It doesn’t help that the only recording of the piece is so constricted aurally, as the claustrophobia of the music is evident at all times. The instrumental group is quite a small one, paving the way for Britten’s use of the chamber orchestra some years later with the War Requiem.
Stratton is in effect a permanent funeral march, though it does occasionally break from the mould. The eighth number hurtles along, a rather macabre moto perpetuo that recalls some of the instrumental writing in The Rape of Lucretia though it feels like an accident waiting to happen. Sure enough, it crashes into something of a brick wall, before the funeral march returns with ever greater certainty in the tenth number. There is a sweet but devastatingly desolate violin solo in the closing pages.
At times I was anticipating a vocal soloist, especially as the first number wound towards its conclusion, but was almost relieved that one did not appear, as it would only bring tales of further heaviness and woe. There is enough downward looking music here already!
English Opera Group Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Pearl)
This recording is currently deleted, which is a shame – more so as it is twinned with a very early recording of The Rape of Lucretia, with Kathleen Ferrier in the title role. However after a long wait I have got hold of a copy, and despite the grainy sound quality it is a dramatic score. Britten conducts the English Opera Group Orchestra, sparse and lean in their sound, and heavy at the bass end – which only heightens the dread of the funeral march episodes.
Unsurprisingly, Stratton is not on Spotify.
Also written in 1949: Kabalevsky – Cello Concerto no.1 in G minor, Op.77
Next up: Lord! I Married me a Wife