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January 29, 2023: Danish String Quartet

Already proficient on the piano since an early age, Britten began viola lessons at the age of ten with Audrey Alston, who introduced him to composer Frank Bridge. Britten’s youthful compositions, unguided by a composition teacher, already numbered over one hundred, and Bridge was impressed enough to persuade Britten’s parents to arrange for private lessons with him in London beginning in 1927. These lessons continued after Britten left South Lodge prep school in 1928 to attend Gresham’s, a boarding school in Norfolk. Bridge’s mentorship was a saving grace since Britten was often unhappy there. He entered the Royal College of Music in 1930, where he began studying composition with John Ireland, who was much more conservative than Bridge in his musical tastes. Britten kept in close contact with Bridge, whose advice he respected more.

In his last year at the Royal College of Music in 1933, Britten began a suite of movements for string quartet initially titled Alla Quartetto serioso, with the deliberately contrasting subtitle “Go play, boy, play,” a quotation from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. His idea was to depict friends and activities from prep school days. He began on February 13 with an Alla marcia movement that briefly became conflated with a never-realized “Emil” suite at the beginning of April when Britten became enamored by the film Emil and the Detectives. Based on Erich Kästner’s novel, the story featured children triumphing over adults, which also had Britten thinking of his school days.

Britten dedicated the Alla marcia movement to David Layton, a friend from Gresham’s, and at one time labeled it “P.T.” for “physical training,” a school activity in which Britten was adept, known especially for his cricket playing. Britten completed two other movements, “At a party” and “Ragging” (dedicated to South Lodge friend Francis Barton) and began another on his way to a projected five. The three completed movements were performed—not especially well, thought Britten—on December 4, 1933, by the Macnaghten String Quartet, led by his friend Anne Macnaghten.

Then in 1936 Britten revisited the pieces, replacing the Alla marcia (which he recycled in “Parade” from the song cycle Les illuminations) with a more dramatic modern march. He titled the middle movement simply Waltz, and the last, still bearing its dedication to Barton, he called Burlesque. The work in final form, now titled Three Divertimenti, was premiered on February 25, 1936, by the Stratton Quartet at London’s Wigmore Hall. Britten wrote that the performance was received “with sniggers and pretty cold silence,” which so upset him that he never published the work. It was issued posthumously in 1983, and has received many performance by quartets seeking a somewhat less formal genre for their programs than a full-fledged string quartet.

Britten wrote marches throughout his career. The edgy opening March here revels in spiky rhythms, glissandos, doubled-stopped unisons, piquant grace notes, and mock fanfares of the kind that appealed to Shostakovich. (Interestingly, the two were to become friends late in their careers after cellist Mstislav Rostropovich introduced them in 1960.)

The middle movement, titled simply Waltz, sounds slightly nostalgic and a bit pastoral, as if glancing backward in time. Nevertheless, the forward-looking outlook that Bridge instilled in the younger composer often surfaces, and the waltz becomes somewhat aggressive before calm returns.

Burlesque takes the listener on a wild ride with its constant tremolos and darting fragments. Its perpetual motion drives to demonstrative chords and, after pausing with hesitating fragments, drives maniacally to its abrupt close.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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