Listening to Britten – Fanfare for St Edmundsbury

The nave of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral, Suffolk Photo taken by James@hopgrove, August 2005, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fanfare for St Edmundsbury for three trumpets (in C) (May 1959, Britten aged 45)

Dedication For the Pageant of Magna Carta at Bury St Edmunds Cathedral
Duration 4′

Audio clip

A clip from the recording made by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. WIth thanks to Decca.

Background and Critical Reception

Despite his prodigious ability to orchestrate for brass, it remains something of a mystery that Britten did not write pieces of even medium length for any instruments in the brass family Russian Funeral is by far the longest, but even that, at seven minutes in length, is hardly gargantuan.

In his booklet notes for the original release of the only available recording of the Fanfare, on Decca, Philip Jones notes the examples Britten left ‘show how skilled he was in creating an individual sound with these instruments’.

The Fanfare for St Edmundsbury was written for the Pageant of Magna Carta held at Bury St Edmunds Cathedral in 1959, and the three trumpeters in the piece heralded each performance over the course of ten days in June of that year. The score specifies the trumpets be placed far apart.

John Bridcut sees the fanfare as evidence of Britten’s love of conundrums. Each fanfare is in a different key and played alone, before all three come together at the end. As Bridcut says, ‘hey presto, they fit snugly together!’


A clever operation, this one, which ends up with three fanfares performed for the price of one. Britten’s construction is meticulously planned, the musical building blocks assembled in single units – a performance of each fanfare – before the final stanza brings all three lines together in one.

The first trumpet begins loosely on a base of F, a pentatonic melody that quickly cuts to a perky second fanfare in C, then a more traditional one in D that harks back to Baroque trumpet writing. Then the three are heard together, and the rhythmic intricacies complement each other, with some striking harmonies, before an emphatic finish to the fanfare ‘in consort’.

This is Britten the clever, resourceful writer – but never does he take his eyes off the resultant effect on the listener, nor the sense of theatre created before the pageant.

Recordings used

Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (Decca)

As you would expect from such a highly regarded ensemble, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble give a flawless performance, the acoustic ideal to capture the echoes Britten would surely have considered when writing the piece.


The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble perform the Fanfare for St Edmundsbury here

Also written in 1959: Alwyn – Symphony no.4

Next up: Missa brevis, Op.63

This entry was posted in Brass ensemble, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Listening to Britten – Fanfare for St Edmundsbury

  1. There is also a version of the Fanfare on the swedish BIS label, BIS-CD 31. The CD is a collection of Britten pieces including the Nocturnal for Guitar, Songs from the Chinese, Cello Suite 1 and the Sinfonietta.

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