Listening to Britten – Symphonic Suite, ‘Gloriana’, Op.53a

Good Frances, do not weep – Gloriana (detail) by Jane Mackay, her personal response to the music. Used with many thanks to the artist, whose work can be viewed on her own website Sounding Art

Symphonic Suite, Gloriana for orchestra and tenor solo (ad lib), Op.53a (5 September – 14 December 1953, Britten aged 40)

1 The tournament
2 The lute song
3 The courtly dances: March; Coranto; Pavane; Morris Dance; Galliard; Lavolta; [March]
4 Gloriana moritura

Dedication unknown
Duration 27′

Background and Critical Reception

As with Peter Grimes, Britten fashioned some excerpts from Gloriana to make this symphonic suite, and later pulled together a set of Choral Dances for chorus and harp. The nature of his neo-Tudor writing, the music divided into shorter sections, made this a relatively easy task, although the final suite is at 27 minutes a good deal longer than the music extracted from Peter Grimes.

Perhaps because of this the suite is seldom played or recorded. For John Bridcut, ‘the suite collapses in the third movement, itself a suite of five dances. Both shape and pace are lost as it meanders on for about ten minutes. It might have been more effective to rework the duet for soprano and tuba from the third scene of Act 2’.

However, he notes how ‘the slow movement of the suite features one of the opera’s greatest moments, the dreamy lute song ‘Happy were he’, where the tenor voice of the Earl of Essex can be replaced by an oboe’.

Interestingly, Sir Paul McCartney chose the Courtly Dances as one of his Desert Island Discs in 1982, the only classical choice he made on the programme.


If further proof were needed that Gloriana has some rather wonderful music, then this orchestral suite provides it handsomely, with an abundance of tunes to be whistled while walking down the street, and some music of real weight and substance when Britten is not setting Elizabethan dances. There is plenty of humour too, with some of the dances having a straight faced wit or the more obvious ones, such as the Coranto, making glaring puns as the brass stomp all over the polite introduction.

The only problem with the suite is, as Bridcut says, a rather lopsided structure. The Courtly Dances are sufficiently versatile to charm even the most hardened listener, but are possibly better served on their own, as the patience does become stretched without the opera’s running dramatic narrative.

It is however a good chance to hear Britten’s integration of styles old and new, a kind of update on what Stravinsky was able to do with Tchaikovsky’s themes in The Fairy’s Kiss. Without any voices it is difficult to follow exactly where the drama is, but perhaps that is the point, to listen to this suite afresh and see how skilfully Britten was still writing for orchestra.

Recordings used

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Takuo Yuasa (EMI)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)

There are only two versions of this suite in the catalogue. Edward Gardner takes the option to use a tenor soloist in the Lute Song, which helps the suite in terms of giving it some essential variety. His is quite a brisk performance, which suits the ceremonial pomp of the brass fanfares.

Takuo Yuasa gets off to a fast start, and is rather too driven for such ceremonial music, but there are still plenty of good things in the slower music from his interpretation, including a lovely oboe solo in the Lute Song and a gracefully turned Morris Dance.



Also written in 1953: Ligeti – Sonata for solo cello

Next up: The brisk young widow

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