Listening to Britten – Lachrymae, Op.48

Hen harrier (c) Graham Catley, whose rather wonderful blog Pewit can be found here

Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of John Dowland op. 48 for viola and piano (16 May 1950, Britten aged 36)

Dedication William Primrose
Duration 13′

Audio clips

Dowland’s song If my complaints could passions move, performed by Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Kenny. With thanks to Hyperion:

Background and Critical Reception

While working on Billy Budd, Britten returned to his first instrument. This time he had not himself but the Scottish viola player William Primrose in mind, and Lachrymae was performed by Primrose and Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1950.

Nowadays it is hardly ever heard or recorded in its initial version for viola and piano, superseded by the composer’s arrangement for viola and string orchestra in 1976.

Writing in his booklet notes for Lawrence Power’s Hyperion recording of the orchestral version, Mervyn Cooke calls the work ‘a satisfying synthesis of various musical elements carrying a strong personal significance for the composer’. He cites these as the writing for Britten’s own instrument, the viola, and his deliberate homage once again to English musical heritage. This time the subject is not Purcell, but the celebrated John Dowland song If my complaints could passions move, published in the First Booke of Songes or Ayres in 1597. Britten also refers to a second Dowland song, Flow my tears, in the course of the piece.

It is once again to the theme and variations form that Britten turns, for he could work within this framework with great fluency. Yet rather than use the conventional order of stating the theme first, he works the variations out beforehand and finishes with the theme itself. This became a feature of some of Britten’s theme and variations movements – his later Nocturnal for guitar and Cello Suite no.3 operate in that way.

Cooke talks of how Dowland’s theme has a ‘strong rising and falling shape which makes Britten’s transformations of it readily comprehensible to the listener’.


This ghostly piece is one of the most serious of Britten’s chamber music utterances. He brings from the viola a range of sounds that show off the instrument’s silvery sound, and from the off, when the piano’s left hand solemnly intones Downland’s theme like a chant, the viola is hovering above, its double stopped notes taking on the profile of a restless bird.

Some of the slower writing – particularly in this viola and piano version – points not towards future English music but to the colours used by Eastern European composers such as Gubaidulina, Górecki and Arvo Pärt. The sudden outburst from the piano in left hand octaves which begins the sixth reflection (Appassionato) is proof positive of this, as is the eerie sound of the cold right hand of the piano slowly chiming with the harmonics of the viola in the tenth reflection, marked Lento .

Here the to and fro between the two instruments is spooky, with no comfort to be found, especially when the urgent tremolos of the penultimate section (L’istesso tempo) begin. But then there is a sense of release and Dowland’s theme is heard in full, the piece reaching a resolution that would never have been possible had Britten begun with the theme itself. In that sense Lachrymae, as well as being a profoundly emotional utterance, becomes a masterly reinterpretation of a very familiar form.

Recordings used

Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Katya Apekisheva (piano) (Champs Hill)

The neglect of Britten’s earlier version for viola and piano is almost total, which is something of a shame. However the one readily available version, part of a disc from Krzysztof Chorzelski and Katya Apekisheva that includes works for viola and piano by Schumann and Shostakovich, is a passionate performance.


The viola and piano original of Lachrymae can be found on this album of 20th century works for viola and piano, performed by Milhail Sarbu and James Creitz.

Also written in 1950: Cage – String Quartet in Four Parts

Next up: Ca’ the yowes

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4 Responses to Listening to Britten – Lachrymae, Op.48

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Britten on Record: Mozart: Piano Concerto no.19 in F major K459 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Lachrymae, Op.48a | Good Morning Britten

  4. Pingback: Luminosa oscuridad | Pablo, la música en Siana

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