Britten String Quartet no. 2 in C, Op. 36

performed by the Auryn Quartet, or below by the Badke Quartet, with Tamsin Waley-Cohen as first violin

We’ve actually featured Britten before, but only once, and we didn’t give anything of a bio, so here’s something short.

Benjamin Britten was born 22 November, 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the youngest of four children to a dentist. He showed musical talents from a very early age. Interestingly, his father had hoped to become a farmer, but according to Wikipedia, “Robert Britten’s youthful ambition to become a farmer had been thwarted by lack of capital, and he had instead trained as a dentist, a profession he practised successfully but without pleasure.” That seems very interesting to me.

Britten nearly died of pneumonia at only three months old, leaving him with a damaged heart, but contrary to doctors’ predictions, he was still able to be quite active, and enjoyed tennis and cricket. He started piano lessons at 7, viola at 10, and was, again according to Wiki, “one of the last composers to be brought up on exclusively live music; his father refused to have a gramophone or, later, a radio in the house,” citing Neil Powell’s Britten: A Life for Music. I also find that very interesting. He studied piano with Ethel Astle, the sister of the owner of a “dame school” which is “an early form of a private elementary school in English-speaking countries. They were usually taught by women and were often located in the home of the teacher.” He was able to hear Frank Bridge’s The Sea, “the first substantial piece of modern music he had ever encountered, and he was, in his own phrase, “knocked sideways” by it.” Audrey Alston, his viola teacher, had encouraged Britten to attend more concerts, and she knew Bridge. After the young boy was so impressed with the work, she arranged their meeting. Bridge agreed to take on the 14-year-old composer, and Dr. Britten acquiesced to his son’s musical studies, under the condition that he continue his regular education in public school. He would make day trips to London to study with Bridge. What a studious young man.

He went on to study at the Royal College of Music after some unhappy days in a boarding school. At the college, he unsurprisingly came across some important names, either just through their music (Mahler, Stravinsky, Shostakovich), or personally, and even intended to study privately with Alban Berg, but was eventually dissuaded by his parents and the RCM staff. Hmmmm. Read the Wikipedia article for all the details, but he came to international fame with his opera Peter Grimes.

His second string quartet comes after the premiere of Peter Grimes. In fact, it was written the same year the opera was premiered, but was not performed until 1946. Apparently a large influence at this period of time was a trip he took with Yehudi Menuhin to perform in Germany for concentration camp survivors. I’m not sure what he had expected that trip to be like, but Wiki says that what Britten saw there “so shocked Britten that he refused to talk about it until towards the end of his life, when he told Pears that it had coloured everything he had written since,” citing Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Britten. The works composed immediately following this period are apparently much darker than what preceded them, and the second string quartet is a good example of that, but perhaps not indicative of the composer’s actual career or style of writing. For something more famous and upbeat, check out his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

The quartet is in three movements, but the third takes up more than half of the work’s 30-ish minute playing time. There’s a wealth of (background) information in the lecture that precedes the above video, but I didn’t include it above. Here’s the video in full, starting from the beginning.

Professor Parker speaks for nearly a half hour, and some of the background info given is far broader in scope than I’d have been willing to sit through as a pre-concert lecture, but it is informative. There is a transcript of the lecture here, and I’ll quote one small passage. After spending a lot of time talking about Britten’s move to America and essentially his repatriation, under some tension, as well as Peter Grimes, he says:

It was in this post-Grimes context that the Second String Quartet emerged, and there are many resonances with what we might call the “project” of the opera. Commissioned by and dedicated to Mary Behrend, a close friend at this time, and first performed in late 1945, the Second Quartet was one of a clutch of works (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and The Holy Sonnets of John Donne are two others) that again celebrated the work of Henry Purcell. Indeed, the Wigmore Hall concert in which the Second String Quartet received its premiere was a commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death.

That certainly seems like a very English thing to do, doesn’t it? But despite that, and skipping over lots of World War II and British and Britten history that I can’t catch up with right now, suffice it to say this piece was influenced by the climate of the time, and was an important point in the composer’s output.

The first movement begins beautifully, pensively, and reminds me of what you might hear if you snuck into a church or concert hall and sat in a dark seat in the back while an organist, unaware of your presence, played something to himself for a while. It’s timeless and personal, intimate. Wikipedia tells us that the first movement is “a kind of sonata form, unusual in that the first and second subjects (themes) give rise to a third subject, all involving the interval of a tenth.” That’s an interesting interval to choose. Professor Parker mentions the first movement’s striking economy of material, but more interestingly, he rather dismisses the significance of any kind of sonata-form analysis and suggests that the tension in this movement may actually (or at least can be seen to) result from the conflict between that single-instrument organ sound (he mentions hurdy-gurdy too) and the bustling, busy energy that eventually erupts after this largely static introduction.

That’s an interesting way to think about it, and one I’m inclined to prefer, because it’s immediately noticeable by anyone, regardless of your perfect pitch, ability to identify themes or keys or intervals, it’s a contrast between static and dynamic, unity and disunity, or even harmony and chaos. That’s perfect. Can you hear how it progresses, or even more importantly, maybe, how it ends? There’s certainly much more to it than that, and plenty to enjoy here, but even with that one little listening goal in mind, we can gain a solid appreciation for this movement, and ultimately….

Who wins? Unity, harmony, peace. The movement comes to a close the same way it opened, peaceful and intimate, unified, with some plucked strings, perhaps reminding us that we are indeed listening to a string quartet, no matter how well the sounds of the four instruments have melted together.

But what comes next? Something almost menacing, angular, crunchy, agitated, suddenly full of a different kind of energy. There are some melodies to be found here, but also some bite, and it’s as if we’re hearing the instruments dance somehow, some move closer while others move away from us, a constant come-and-go of sounds. Parker says that “machine-like gestures fragment any sense of the musical pastoral of the preceding generation of English composers,” and describes this as an “urban” landscape in contrast with much of the English pastoral music one might expect to hear.

At only about a third the length of the first movement (which is itself about half the length of the finale), this central movement is barely more than an intermezzo, but what it lacks in duration it makes up for with a puzzling intensity, suddenly but effectively changing the mood. It’s chattery, at times marked with piercing chords, but ultimately ends (rather) quietly, and with these first two movements behind us, we wonder what could be next.

And they both then feel like mere overtures to what must certainly be the heart of the work, labeled “Chacony”, as Parker says “an overt homage to Purcell, who wrote several such movements, and the crowning glory of the quartet.” Wiki tells us that ‘chacony’ is more often referred to as a chaconne or passacaglia. Those are more familiar terms for sure. It is a theme-and-variations movement, with 21 variations “divided into four sections by solo cadenzas for the cello, viola and first violin.” Multiple people refer to program notes for the premiere, in which Britten says “The sections may be said to review the theme from (a) harmonic, (b) rhythmic, (c) melodic, and (d) formal aspects.” It almost seems, at least to me, that this final movement is a meditation, a large, sprawling, powerfully musical meditation on extramusical things.

Does the opening of the finale remind us of the first movement? I’m not sure, but the overall effect, for me (since I will not play-by-play this movement) is that those first two movements served as warm-ups, emotional stretching exercises, and perhaps only after we’ve worked to process what we’ve heard in the first two movements are we prepared to  hear what’s presented in the finale.

I mean, obviously perhaps not, but that’s the impression I have when I listen, because the music works on both absolutely musical as well as extramusical ideas, the Purcell-inspired musical ideas, but also Britten’s own career, his departure and return to his home country, having visited Germany. There’s really so much here, and I can’t pretend to know about it all, or what the composer would have thought or was trying to express, nor can I say I’m intimately familiar with this work, but it’s one that whispers in your ear with each listen to come back and try again, have another listen and see what you can learn, and that’s enticing to say the least.

The piece is also a good argument for giving Britten far more attention than I have so far, but I’m not sure when I’ll get around to being able to do that. While this quartet is maybe not the first work that comes to mind to represent the composer, it is a gem, with plenty to offer and discover.

This work also puts us much closer to the halfway point of the 20th century, and next week will see three works that, if my memory serves, all date from 1948, so do stay tuned for that, and as always, thanks for reading and listening.

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