Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
The English composer Benjamin Britten has proven to be one of the most original and enduring composers of the 20th century. Celebrated for his vocal music, particularly his songs, several successful operas and the War Requiem, Britten was an equally brilliant instrumental composer with a number of outstanding chamber pieces and at least two very popular orchestral scores: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell (also known as A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) and Variations on the Theme of Frank Bridge. The common element between both works is a marvelous specialty of Britten’s: a theme and variations concluding with a fugue. Both his admiration for Purcell and his skillful penchant for contrapuntal variations come together again in his String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, a work of startling originality, surely one of the most important string quartets of the 20th century.
The year 2013 marks the centennial of Britten’s birth and has witnessed a widespread celebration of his music through a variety of programming. High on the list, the second string quartet owes its existence to another major event: the 250th anniversary of English composer Henry Purcell’s death in 1695. Britten composed the quartet for a commemorative concert and it was premièred on November 21, 1945, precisely 250 years after Purcell’s death to the day. Britten was 32 years old at the time.
The opening movement is immediately tantalizing with its spacious, atmospheric thematic material. A prominent element is a large intervallic leap of a tenth, upward from the tonic to the major third an octave higher. Against this euphony, Britten weaves a few short melodic fragments using more exotic intervals with a sound that is modern and ancient at the same time. A robust, rhythmic propulsion soon establishes a vector of forward momentum that supports a number of “sections” exploring the essential thematic materials across a well-shaped dramatic narrative with a climax that combines the various themes into a rich complex simultaneity. Britten is a master of scoring for strings. The range of dynamics, textures and sonorities is startling, exploiting both delicate polyphony as well as mighty unisons with a nearly orchestral force.
The middle movement is a driving scherzo with a certain kind of unsettling mania one associates with Shostakovich, a friend and greatly admired composer to Britten. Again, the music ranges between mighty unities and delicate contrapuntal textures with special sonorities. The trio section finds the first violin boldly leering in loud double-stops over the subdued “accompaniment” of the other three instruments as a kind of instrumental singer / guitar duo. The migration back into the main scherzo and onward to the conclusion showcases a tensile electricity that might be described as synaptic.
The explicit tribute to Purcell is the epic finale, an expansive theme and variations that Britten titled “Chacony”, the old English word Purcell used to designate a particular kind of variation movement more broadly known by the Italian word chaconne. A chaconne is a set of variations based on a short, recurring harmonic progression, that is, a set of chords and a supporting baseline. With this as a constant, the music spins out any number of variations through changes in melody, rhythm, instrumentation and contrapuntal elaboration. Britten’s Chacony features 21 variations organized into four sets demarcated by solo cadenzas from the cello, viola and first violin respectively. As Britten explained in a short program note for the première, each of the four sets explores a particular mode of variation: harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, and “formal aspects.” James Keller suggests that herein one finds a sort of four-movement inner quartet all on its own. For an equally epic conclusion, the last variation features 21 C Major chords as a kind of “drone” against which the original theme’s harmonic motion becomes particularly vivid. The overall effect of the second quartet is representative of nearly all of Britten’s work: the music is modern yet accessible, original yet compellingly “recognizable”, ingeniously constructed yet emotionally communicative. It is music that simply works and it is destined to prevail.