Britten: Simple Symphony for String Orchestra, Opus 4 

Edward Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, Sussex, England, on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, in 1913, and died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. On June 12, 1976, he had been created Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the Queen's Birthday Honours, which made him the first musician to be elevated to the peerage. He composed the Simple Symphony between December 23, 1933, and February 10, 1934. The published score carries this prefatory note by Britten: "The ‘Simple Symphony’ is entirely based on material from works which the composer wrote between the ages of nine and twelve. (The actual sources are given in footnotes to each movement.) Although the development of these themes is in many places quite new, there are large stretches of the work which are taken bodily from the early pieces—save for the re-scoring for strings.” Britten himself led the first performance in Norwich, England, on March 6, 1934. The first performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given in May 1984 under the direction of Kurt Masur; Alexander Barantschik led the most recent performances, in February 2007. Performance time: about sixteen minutes.

Someone at a tennis party asked the fourteen-year-old E.B. Britten what he planned to be when he grew up. "A composer," he said. "Yes, but what else?" came the reply. When that conversation took place, Elgar was still alive, his reputation sinking fast, in despair at the prospect for an English composer to be taken seriously as a professional. More than anyone, Britten would change that. Under the guidance of Frank Bridge, a fascinating maverick among English composers, he acquired a superlative technique in support of his astounding gifts of invention and ear, and, working at the Royal College of Music with Harold Samuel and Arthur Benjamin, he became an outstanding pianist. In 1934 he heard Wozzeck—it was the British premiere, a concert performance conducted by Adrian Boult—and he knew at once that he wanted to study with Alban Berg. At that point, in perfect exemplification of British insularity and anti-professionalism, Sir Hugh Allen, director of the College, advised Britten's parents not to permit a move that could only lead to musical and—he hinted—personal corruption.

By this time, Britten had already written the Simple Symphony as well as the adventurous if crabbed Sinfonietta, Opus 1; the Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, Opus 2, which won him the prize offered annually by W. W. Cobbett, editor of an invaluable Cyclopaedia of Chamber Music; and a delightfully fresh set of variations for chorus, A Boy was Born. Indeed, Britten was already a composer when the conversation at the tennis party took place. His younger sister, Beth Welford, recalls:

There was never any doubt that music in some form was to be Ben's future. From the age of two years he scrambled on to the piano stool, saying, “Dear pay pano,” (he called himself “dear” when a child). At the age of five, before he could write words, he started to put notes of music on to paper, although of course at first they did not make any musical sense. He said later that he gave our mother these bits of paper and asked her to play them for him. Her look of horror at this request assured him that he had not yet made real music. Not to be deterred, Ben struggled on, and before he was nine he had written real music. (Remembering Benjamin Britten, edited by Alan Blyth, London, 1981)

We also have Britten's own account of his early years as a composer, this from a talk for the BBC in 1946:

I remember the first time I tried [composing], the result looked rather like the Forth Bridge, in other words hundreds of dots all over the page connected by long lines all joined together in beautiful curves. I am afraid it was the pattern on the paper which I was interested in and when I asked my mother to play it, her look of horror upset me considerably. My next efforts were much more conscious of sound. I had started playing the piano and wrote elaborate tone poems usually lasting about twenty seconds, inspired by terrific events in my home life such as the departure of my father for London, the appearance in my life of a new girl friend or even a wreck at sea. My later efforts luckily got away from these emotional inspirations and I began to write sonatas and quartets which were not connected in any direct way with life. . . .

At eight Britten started piano lessons with Ethel Astle and at ten he began viola with Audrey Alston in Norwich. It is to Miss Alston, later Mrs. Lincolne Sutton, that the Simple Symphony is dedicated. The materials of the Simple Symphony come from Britten's prolific abstract period at South Lodge School. The revisions that older composers make of their early works can be fascinating, but the Simple Symphony is hardly more than an accomplished composer's ordering of a raw composer's ideas.

The Boisterous Bourr√©e combines two themes, the first taken from the Suite No. 1 for Piano (1926), the second—the very English-sounding tune—from a song of 1923. The song, if you listen carefully, turns out not quite as innocent in its breathing and phrase structure as it first appears. The Playful Pizzicato is drawn from two pieces of 1924, a Scherzo for Piano and another very rustic and English song. The Sentimental Saraband—and sentimental is right—begins with material from the Suite No. 3 for Piano (which antedates the Suite No. 1 by a year), while the major-mode middle section uses a Waltz by the nine-year-old Britten of 1923. The Frolicsome Finale, organized much like the first movement, uses a dance-like theme from the Piano Sonata No. 9 of 1926 and a more flowing tune from a song of the previous year. Britten the boy was full of good ideas, and the twenty-year-old Britten was already a most assured composer, whose string writing holds out the promise of dazzling virtuosity to come.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Benjamin Britten with the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca)  |  Steuart Bedford with the Northern Sinfonia (Naxos)

Reading: Britten,by Michael Kennedy, in The Master Musicians series (Oxford University Press)  |  Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, edited and annotated by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed (University of California Press)