Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976
Benjamin Britten has come to be regarded as one of the great 20th composers and certainly among the greatest British composers of all time. His musical talent became evident early with a penchant for composing that resulted is over 100 numbered compositions before the age of eighteen. Britten’s mature fame rests primarily on his vocal and stage works: art songs, choral compositions, highly praised operas and the monumental war requiem. But Britten was a skillful instrumental composer as well producing a compelling variety of chamber music from his youth to his final years. Particularly prized are his string quartets, a Phantasy for oboe and string trio, a cello sonata and his three remarkable suites for solo cello dedicated to Rostropovich. His mature string quartet cycle comprises three numbered quartets and the Three Divertimenti for String Quartet written in 1933 when Britten was in his early twenties but subsequently revised quite extensively a few years later in 1936.
The Three Divertimenti are, as the title suggests, a set of three individual character pieces meant as “pleasing entertainment” without necessarily any serious import or larger formal considerations as might be implied by a multi-movement string quartet. The bristling rhythms, glissandi (sliding notes) and colorful harmonics of the first piece “March” immediately place the music in the 20th century in terms of style, but as with most of Britten’s compositions, the music is tonal, accessible and broadly appealing. Nonetheless, suggestions of Stravinsky, Bartók and Britten’s primary teacher Frank Bridge prevail. The second movement “Waltz” is a bit more tame technically with compelling textures and traditional chamber dialog with a whiff of English pastoral character. The last piece titled “Burlesque” reprises the unmistakable vibrancy of 20th century rhythms, techniques and sonorities in a mini-masterwork of color and dynamic contrast. It is immediately obvious, even in his twenties, that Britten was a composer of great skill, imagination and originality. He was dedicated to the mission of writing music for the public, a refreshing stance among so many early 20th century composers who seemed to retreat into isolated intellectual esoterica. These three small character pieces serve as appetizers for the three larger scale numbered quartets Britten produced in 1941, 1945 and 1975 respectively. The Alexander Quartet is currently in the midst of performing this full cycle of Britten’s music for string quartet.