String Quartet No.3, Op.94 (October – 20 November 1975, Britten aged 61)
1 Duets: With moderate movement
2 Ostinato: Very fast
3 Solo: Very calm
4 Burlesque: Fast, con fuoco
5 Recitative and Passacaglia
Dedication Hans Keller
Clips from each of the five movements can be heard on the Hyperion website, using the new recording from the Takács String Quartet on Hyperion.
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s third numbered string quartet – his fifth and last to be published in the medium – is a direct product of the composer’s ailing health in 1975. With his capacity for work dwindling but not unbowed, it was suggested to him – in all seriousness by his friend Hans Keller – that if he wrote for less staves on the manuscript score he would be able to write more music.
He therefore completed a dedication for his friend, but as Keller recounts in his recent book, Britten: Essays, Letters and Opera Guides, the thought had been in his mind for some while. After a protracted discussion on form and sonata structure, Britten said to his friend, ‘One day, I’ll write a string quartet for you’. What he completed is something of a Divertimento – a wide ranging term that can apply from a short multi-movement piece to something as substantial as Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio, K563. The implication is that Britten wanted the freedom the form gave him.
With the Amadeus Quartet already enthusiastic exponents of his work, Britten took up the challenge with the help of the group and his assistant, composer Colin Matthews, who helped write much of the music from the piano. Although the Amadeus and Britten ran through the piece in private, he did not live to hear the public’s thoughts on the piece, for the premiere took place just over two weeks after his death.
The last movement of the quartet was written in its entirety in Venice, where Britten was still well enough to go on holiday, and perhaps inevitably it takes its lead from Death in Venice for its musical material. These are thought to be a present in musical form for Peter Pears. The final chord was a matter of some conjecture, and Britten changed it – for in the words of Colin Matthews, he wanted the work to ‘end on a question’.
Writing in Tempo, Colin’s brother David Matthews declared, ‘The two earlier quartets had been among his finest instrumental works; the Third is their equal in invention, and in range and depth of expression their superior.’
He praises the stylistic invention in the trio sections of the second and fourth movements, but reserves special praise for the third movement of the ‘arch’ form. ‘The slow movement, again tripartite, is a rapt violin solo, at first with the simplest of single-line accompaniments; then breaking out into a fantastic cadenza; finally suspended above a shimmer of harmonics from the other three instruments. This last section is the consummation of all Britten’s C major music: it is utterly simple, and profoundly moving.’
John Bridcut also homes in on this movement in his appraisal of the quartet. ‘It’s not often that one of a composer’s final utterances holds the key for a newcomer to unlock his music, but ‘Solo’, as it is called, does just that. It features a long, haunting, cantilena from the first violin, interrupted by the sweetest birdsong, while his three colleagues produce otherworldly sounds from a mixture of harmonics, pizzicatos, glissandos, arpeggios and trills. With such a rich sound palette, it is hard to believe it is a string quartet – you could swear there are wind instruments here, and others not yet invented.’
The third string quartet finds Britten standing literally at the gateway between life and death. He was fully aware by this time that recovery of health would be denied him, and instead channelled his remaining energy into the completion of the quartet. Helped by Hans Keller and Colin Matthews, and fired by the Amadeus Quartet, he had all the encouragement he needed – and what results is one of his very finest works, a suitable high on which to complete his instrumental writing.
In this work Britten picks up where Death in Venice left off, the first violin using the same conversational style that Britten assigned to Aschenbach, painting also a picture of the undulating waters of the city’s canals. There is an intense period of contemplation that runs through the odd numbered movements of this five-movement piece, and when the violin takes the lead in the Solo, it does so as a leader in prayer and meditation. Either side of this moving section are two gruff, defiant scherzos, Britten writing closer to the style of Shostakovich but seeming also to shake his fist at the approach of Death.
The final movement has perhaps the strongest sense of inevitability in late Britten. A Passacaglia, naturally, it is both sure footed and sublime, every repetition of the gently rising phrase feeling like a slow but sure step towards another world. That it ends on a question is something of a masterstroke, for after the serenity of the E major chord is realised in harmonics, Britten still has questions in his life and beliefs that remain unanswered. Ending on the ambiguous chord speaks volumes.
The third quartet, then, is where Britten officially takes his leave. A handful of works would follow, but this is the moment where he gives up his soul, in music of affecting beauty. The last movement ensures he leaves with his head held high, innovating and captivating to the very end.
Amadeus String Quartet (Testament)
Amadeus String Quartet (Decca)
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Belcea String Quartet (EMI)
Maggini String Quartet (Naxos)
Sorrel String Quartet (Chandos)
Emperor Quartet (BIS)
Endellion String Quartet (Warner Classics)
Valuable footage exists of the Amadeus Quartet performing the String Quartet no.3 at Aldeburgh in 1977, preserved by Testament in the company of Schubert’s String Quintet, performed at the same concert with William Pleeth.
The Solo is completely captivating, the camera spending almost the entirety of the movement focussed on violinist Norbert Brainin, as it does on Peter Schidlof in the moving viola solo of the final movement.
The Amadeus Quartet also recorded the third quartet for Decca, an authoritative and deeply moving account that stands right at the front of some fine interpretations. Also of great importance are the recordings from the Endellion and Alberni Quartets, for a long time the only other two versions to be found. More recently the Endellion committed a new version to disc for Warner Classics, though for me the EMI remains superior.
There are also strong digital versions from the Sorrel, Maggini, Belcea and Emperor Quartets, all benefiting from excellent engineering, but it is the Amadeus and the first Endellion version to which I would return most frequently.
The following playlist for the Third String Quartet brings together the version by the Amadeus Quartet with the Belcea, Maggini and the most recent Endellion version.
Also written in 1975: Shostakovich: Viola Sonata
Next up: Tema ‘Sacher’