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Benjamin Britten: a survey of the orchestral music

(September 2010)

The Benjamin Britten centenary in 2013 offers orchestras and festivals the opportunity to explore the composer’s repertoire beyond those perennial favourites, Four Sea Interludes, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

Although a number of major works in Benjamin Britten’s output include in their title ‘symphony’ or ‘sinfonia’, the composer avoided direct lineage from the traditional symphony, instead exploring hybrid forms prompted by Mahler’s example. His largest purely orchestral work is the powerful Sinfonia da Requiem, commissioned by the Japanese government for a dynastic anniversary but composed as Britten’s memorial tribute to his parents. The work combines a pacifist’s strong reaction to the menace of war with liturgical movement titles drawn from the Requiem Mass.

The Spring Symphony is a compelling fusion of symphony, oratorio and song cycle, exploring the reawakening of the earth and life. It is wholly characteristic of Britten in its response to English verse, from Edmund Spenser to WH Auden, and its blending of original composition with folksong traditions. The riotous May-Day festival finale is the composer at his most energetic, complete with cow horn, cheeky boys’ chorus, and high-spirited music-making. The Cello Symphony is essentially a concerto, written for Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich, while also signalling Britten’s re-engagement with symphonic thought in the 1960s.

Just as the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia capture scene-setting and the emotional undertow of the drama in Peter Grimes, so do orchestral suites from other Britten stageworks, extracted either by the composer himself or by his closest collaborators. The Symphonic Suite ‘Gloriana’ draws us into the Elizabethan age, with a tournament, courtly dances, a lute song and the epilogue in which the Queen balances the call of love and duty. The melody of the Earl of Essex’s lute song can either be sung by a tenor or played by an oboe.

Music from Britten’s ballet The Prince of the Pagodas can be heard in three different orchestral compilations: the exhilarating Pas de six from Act 3; the Prelude and Dances compiled by Norman del Mar with Britten’s authorization, and the more recent 45-minute suite arranged by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke to include the gamelan music which gives the ballet its distinctive eastern flavour.

Britten orchestral works published by Faber Music include the Suite from Death in Venice and his orchestral farewell, the Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was…’

Sinfonia da Requiem op.20 (1939-40)  20’

Spring Symphony op.44(1948-49)  45’
for soloists, chorus, boys’ choir and orchestra

Cello Symphony op.68 (1963, rev.1964)  34’

Gloriana: Symphonic Suite op.53a (1953)  26’

The Prince of the Pagodas:
Pas de six op.57a (1956)  12’
Prelude and Dances op.57b (1963)  27’
The Prince of the Pagodas: Suite op.57c (1997)  42’ or 47’

A new CD sampler of Britten’s orchestral music is available for orchestral programmers and conductors preparing concerts for the Britten Centenary: please email composers.uk@boosey.com. The CD also contains a fully updated Guide to the Orchestral Works of Benjamin Britten, covering the composer’s complete orchestral output. To download a PDF of the Guide visit www.boosey.com/brittenorchestral

Other Britten Centenary surveys:
> Concertos
> Vocal music





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