Listening to Britten – Miniature Suite for string quartet


Britten (bottom left) and his class at Gresham’s School. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org”

Miniature Suite for string quartet (26 January – 13 February 1929, Britten aged 15)

1 Novelette
2 Minuet
3 Romance
4 Gavotte

Dedication not known
Duration 10’30”

Background and Critical Reception

The Miniature Suite for string quartet was completed at Gresham’s in the middle of February 1929, a month that also included the Rhapsody for string quartet, the Etude for solo viola and two songs – an early indication of the mature Britten’s productivity.

The suite, in four movements, is the most substantial of these works – though I could not find any details on the work’s first performance, which must surely have been at the school.

The Emperor String Quartet restored this work’s profile with a digital recording for BIS that was issued in 2010. This was its first airing, and was subsequently picked up by Decca to form part of their Complete Works box in 2013. Reviewing this version for the Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Norris writes, ‘In the Miniature Suite, Britten’s aversion to Elgar fuels a delightful opening novelette’.

Thoughts

Britten’s musical language in the Miniature Suite is polite and elegant, suggesting a growing affinity with the music of Schubert and Haydn, but also an acquaintance with some of the inner workings of Dvořák. The first movement Novelette has a pleasant theme and discourse – and indeed there are faint traces of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in its poise. The Menuetto has the regal air of a hymn tune, and again the musical arguments are very courteous, the harmony consonant – with more than a passing resemblance here to Haydn’s Emperor string quartet.

The emotional heart of the suite can be found in the warm-hearted Romanza, the violins doubling up attractively, while the finale is the most confident of the four movements, its writing suggesting that a complete string orchestra would find much to enjoy here.

No big clues, then, for future stylistic developments – more a furthering of the promise shown in the early String Quartet in F major.

Recordings used

Emperor String Quartet (world premiere recording) (BIS)

For Geoffrey Norris, the Emperor String Quartet ‘approach the whole suite with affection and grace’ – which seems the best possible way to describe their performance on a very enjoyable disc that includes Britten’s String Quartet no.2, String Quartet in D major and 3 Divertimenti. Above all, it is an interpretation that brings out the work’s Schubert connections.

Spotify

The Emperor String Quartet can be heard in the Miniature Suite as part of their first release on BIS here, from track 7 onwards.

Also written in 1929: Prokofiev – The Prodigal Son, Op.46

Next up: Two Pieces for violin and piano

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