Britten: Double Concerto in B Minor for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra

Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1913, and died in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. On June 12, 1976, he had been created Lord Britten of Aldeburgh in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, the first musician to be elevated to the peerage. He worked on the Double Concerto between March 9 and May 4, 1932. The first performance was given at the fiftieth Aldeburgh Festival on June 15, 1997, by Katherine Hunka and Philip Dukes, with Kent Nagano conducting the Britten-Pears Orchestra. The first North American performance was given on July 25, 1998, by Jorja Fleezanis and Thomas Turner, with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra. The only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given in December 2004 by violinist Alexander Barantschik and violist Geraldine Walther, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting. The score calls for two each of flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani, suspended cymbals, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes.

From the time he was in his late twenties, Benjamin Britten was a composer very much in the public ear and eye. Even so, impressive works from his early maturity have emerged since his death in 1976, including the exhilarating Young Apollo (1939), the engaging American Overture (1941), the orchestrally brilliant Occasional Overture (1946), and “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” a beautiful Tennyson song (1943).

Some juvenilia have come to light as well, and in that category the Double Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra is a wonderfully poetic and treasurable addition to the repertory. This is the eighteen-year-old Benjamin Britten. Accounts of Britten as a composer of concert music tend to begin with the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), a work extraordinary for its expressive originality, instrumental fantasy, and compositional know-how. (Britten would not have put his revered teacher and mentor’s name on the title page had he not been at least reasonably confident about all that.) But we know that by then—age twenty-three—Britten was already both an excellent and quite experienced composer. The Sinfonietta, Opus 1 (1932), a superb work that is his boldest exploration in the direction of high modernism, tells us that, and so does the haunting Phantasy, Opus 2 (1932), for oboe and strings. Besides, by the time he composed the Bridge Variations, Britten had already gained renown for his documentary film scores Coal Face and Night Mail. To listen to the Sinfonietta, the Phantasy, and this Double Concerto is to be reminded that Britten is the composing teenager who comes closest to those young geniuses Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.

Colin Matthews, who prepared the score from Britten’s sketches of the Double Concerto, notes that those sketches are “complete in practically every detail” and that it is therefore “puzzling that he never made a full score of the work . . . and seems to have made no effort to get it performed.” In 1932, except for Mozart, Britten’s great musical loves—Purcell, Schubert, Mahler—were still in the future. The current enthusiasm was for Stravinsky. Bridge had taken him to see the Ballets Russes production of Petrushka, and he himself had bought recordings and eventually scores of The Rite of Spring and the Symphony of Psalms. Not that Stravinsky, that most imitated of twentieth-century masters, was a heavy presence in Britten’s music then or later, but if sharp-witted precision of hearing and planning is a feature of the Double Concertoand it is—then the study of those great Stravinsky works will have been a powerful stimulus in that direction.

At the same time, the Double Concerto reveals an artistic personality on which Romanticism has left an indelible mark. The first movement begins with an arresting gesture: a mildly dissonant chord played four times, its urgency growing with its repetitions, before settling down as a quiet but edgy buzz in tremulousstrings. This buzz is the background for a horn solo, and here the seasoned Britten-lover smiles, for this is unmistakably music the composer remembered, revisited, and reused (not literally) twenty-one years later in the marvelously atmospheric Tennyson “Nocturne” in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings: “Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying, / Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.”

When the solo strings enter—viola first, and made to fly amazingly high—their gestures are also in horn language, just as trumpet and timpani will both emulate horn-talk in their own ways. Only after that do the soloists speak in their characteristic idiom. A new and rapturously lyric theme, this too introduced by the viola, expands the vocabulary, as do the virtuosic passages that follow. The fanfares and other ideas from the opening return in due course, and this brief movement ends energetically but very quietly.

Muted strings in rich chords introduce the slow movement, which is headed “Rhapsody.” This time the solo violin begins, rising unaccompanied across nearly four octaves and down again. The viola counters with a brief, more fantastical soliloquy, and then the duet begins. The rhythmic flexibility of the two singers is masterly, as is the young composer’s sense of color, with plucked strings in the orchestra setting off the soloists’ rhapsodic song. This is music by someone who knows how to compose duets—the operatic master to come. Counterpart to the violin’s solo opening, the viola—almost alone, with soft exhalations of strings and woodwinds—leads these pages to their close.

With the last chord still sounding, timpani, played with wooden snare-drum sticks, sound a quiet tattoo that makes a bridge into the finale. The timpani continue as the basses and bassoons counter with a twitchy offbeat rhythm that would have been quite tricky in 1932. The soloists come back in, the viola with sharply rhythmic chords, the violin in running passages. After considerable exploration of these possibilities, rising to a climax, we are suddenly back in the world of the slightly dissonant opening of the concerto. The horn call returns, too, but now soft and in the distance, on flute and clarinet. Those sounds persist as the soloists swing up and down in wide-ranging rolled chords. These become slower and slower, and as they wind down altogether—and the music is now very soft—from far away we hear for one last time “the horns of Elfland faintly blowing.”

—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: Violinist Gidon Kremer and violist Yuri Bashmet, with Kent Nagano conducting the HallĂ© Orchestra (Apex)  |  Violinist Pieter Schoeman and violist Alexander Zemtsov, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic (LPO)  |  Violinist Benjamin Schmid and violist Daniel Raiskin, with Lior Shambadal conducting the Berlin Symphony (Arte Nova)
Reading: Britten,by Michael Kennedy, in The Master Musicians Series (Oxford)  |  Benjamin Britten, by Michael Oliver (Phaidon)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, edited by Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge)  |  Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976, edited by Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke (Boydell Press)