Listening to Britten – Variation on an Elizabethan Theme

The Royal Cypher of Queen Elizabeth II

Variation on an Elizabethan Theme for string orchestra (January 1953, Britten aged 29) – part of Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, a multi-composer work:

Theme – Byrd, arr. Imogen Holst
Variation 1: Allegro non troppo (Oldham)
Variation 2: A lament: Andante espressivo (Tippett) (which later became the second movement of his Divertimento for chamber orchestra (Sellinger’s round))
Variation 3: Andante (Lennox Berkeley)
Variation 4: Quick and gay (Britten)
Variation 5: Nocturne: Adagio (Humphrey Searle)
Variation 6: Finale: Presto giocoso (William Walton)

Dedication for the Coronation Choral Concert at the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival
Duration 2′ (total work 15′)

Background and Critical Reception

Britten and five other leading British composers decided to collaborate in a work to honour the Queen’s Coronation at the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival.

As their theme they chose Sellinger’s Round, which, according to the Britten Thematic Catalogue entry for the work, had wide popularity from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. It is attributed in this entry to William Byrd.

Each composer then contributed a variation, but at the first two performances the identity of the composers and their variations were not revealed, and the audience were asked to enter a competition to guess.

In his variation Britten included a motif from his much more substantial tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, the opera Gloriana, on which he was working at the time.

In the 2013 BBC Proms the work was revived by the Britten Sinfonia in a Proms Saturday Matinee concert, and for the occasion two further variations were commissioned from John Casken and Tansy Davies. They were inserted between those by Searle and Walton.


When heard in full, the Elizabethan Variations offer a great game if you are listening for the first time, and it isn’t always that easy to guess the composer!

Britten and his immediate friends, Imogen Holst, Lennox Berkeley and Sir Michael Tippett, are present, as are those a little further removed – Sir William Walton, Humphrey Searle and Arthur Oldham. The two recent additions from Casken and Davies were appraised on this blog at the BBC Proms.

Britten’s variation, the fourth, might be marked ‘Quick and Gay’, but it is quite foreboding and has considerable weight to it, especially when heard on the composer’s own recording – that is until the final moments, when a solo violin emerges from the texture and adds some playfulness. Jac van Steen treats it a little lighter on the more recent digital version.

Sellinger’s Round, with its insistent triple time theme, is heard initially in its arrangement by Imogen Holst. Arthur Oldham then uses quite full bodied orchestra, which turns in on itself for Tippett’s contribution, which has a violin solo in trills that offers hints of Corelli but moves with a harmonic strangeness. The intensely lyrical violin contrasted with a worrisome background is a shiver on the wind.

After a gentle dance from Lennox Berkeley comes Britten, then a very moody and atmospheric variation from Humphrey Searle, which gets closer to his serial aesthetic without forsaking a sense of melody.

William Walton gets the prime time slot, if you like, writing a deft fugue that calls for bows to bounce on the violins, before working through to a rousing conclusion in C major, brilliantly realised for the strings.

Recordings used

Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Hänssler)
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jac van Steen

Britten’s own recording can come across as a little severe, but the 1956 broadcast is very nicely restored by Hänssler, and is offered with broadcast versions of Sinfonia da Requiem and the Gloriana Suite, with the same orchestra.

Jac van Steen’s version with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is much fuller, benefitting from digital sound and a really nice heft to the string sound where appropriate. It is part of a disc with several multi-composer variation works, if that makes sense!


This playlist offers both recordings referred to above, conducted by Britten and van Steen respectively.

Also written in 1953: Shostakovich – Symphony no.10 in E minor, Op.93

Next up: Gloriana, Op.53

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