Listening to Britten – Lachrymae, Op.48a

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

Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of John Dowland op. 48a for viola and orchestra (16 May 1950, arranged February 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Cecil Aronowitz
Duration 13′

Audio clips

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

A clip of the recording made by Laurence Power and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov can be heard on the Hyperion website.

Background and Critical Reception

The original version of Lachrymae, for viola and piano, dates from 1950, marking the first fruits of Britten’s lengthy spell of the music of John Dowland. He was to perform many of the songs in partnership with Peter Pears, but also took Dowland’s music as the starting point for the Nocturnal for guitar in 1963. Both works are effectively Variations and a Theme, with the theme almost the last melody to appear in each case. For Lachrymae Britten uses Dowland’s song If my complaints could passions move as the source of his musical material.

In the last year of his life Britten orchestrated the piano part, so that the viola player Cecil Aronowitz could perform it as a concert piece with strings. Careful to ensure the solo viola retained the prominence it had in the original, he chose not to use any violins in the orchestra.


Britten’s recasting of Lachrymae is an unmitigated triumph, turning what was already an accomplished piece into one of the finest ‘concertante’ pieces in existence for the viola. The colours of his ‘home’ instrument continue to be brilliantly exploited, but with the added colours of the string orchestra available to him Britten adds extra depth and perspective to the piece.
In this version the pizzicato variation sends shivers down the spine, with the ghostly harmonics of the orchestra in the middle background, and it sounds like fully fledged film music. There is a real frisson throughout, and it’s tempting to view it the music once again as standing between one life and another, as if in a dream state.

In the third variation the music shimmers in the half light, while the shaded harmonics of the fifth uncannily evoke shafts of moonlight in fog. The tremolo on the viola as the theme approaches in its fullest state is truly formidable, especially with a full string orchestra behind it, while the theme itself is baleful, rather sorrowful, and incredibly moving. The sudden plain speaking of the Dowland quotation is something of a shock to the ear, and nothing can follow it.

Recordings used

Maxim Rysanov, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Lars Anders Tomter, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra / Iona Brown (Virgin Classics)
Philip Dukes, Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
Lawrence Power, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Catherine Bullock, Camerata Nordica / Terje Tennesen (BIS)
Roger Chase, Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion)

Rysanov and Gardner harness some impressive raw power in their version, and there is a heft and a bite to the BBC SO strings that will make the listener baulk (in a good way!). Lars Anders Tomter and Iona Brown also present a version of high intensity, though theirs has a leaner sound.

Lawrence Power and Ilan Volkov are another highly strung alternative, part of an excellent disc that includes the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, while Roger Chase and the Nash Ensemble offer a smaller scale account, though no less probing – and with some very enjoyable


This playlist offers versions of Lachrymae from Philip Dukes and the Northern Sinfonia, Ross Pople and Douglas Boyd with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Also written in 1976: Maxwell Davies – The Martyrdom of St Magnus

Next up: Lord! I married me a wife

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