Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Program note for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, January 12–13, 2018, and on tour to Palm Desert, Santa Barbara, UC Davis, and Stanford University, January 15–19, 2018
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019
Benjamin Britten is so closely associated with his native England that it may be hard to imagine that for a few years at the beginning of the Second World War he emigrated to the United States—and might have stayed, had he not grown homesick by 1942. But it was an important three-year detour: his relationship with his traveling companion, Peter Pears, grew from an ambiguous friendship into affirmed romance. He found critical success in New York, and then drove across the continent with Pears in a borrowed Ford, arriving to stay with friends in Escondido, California. It was in a Southern California bookshop in 1941 that he picked up a collection by the 19th-century English poet George Crabbe, which made him nostalgic for his costal home in Suffolk and inspired his 1945 opera, Peter Grimes.
Britten’s American journey was motivated by his commitment to pacifism in the face of war in Europe. He began the Violin Concerto in England and completed it in Quebec during the summer of 1939, just before he and Pears settled temporarily in New York. The piece feels more of its time than of a particular place: it’s serious and uneasy, with lyrical surfaces built on a dangerously unstable foundation.
Britten creates this impression through harmony: from the start, he undermines the clarity of the key. The opening violin melody starts in F major, but by the third measure drifts toward F minor, then falls a woozy half step toward F-flat, before recovering back up—all while tracing the contour of a much more conventional tune. This is just one example of this concerto’s tonal ambiguities, which crop up on both small and large scales.
The first movement’s second theme is bold and belligerent, yet also lighthearted, perhaps mocking military pomp. Later, in what might be the concerto’s most breathtaking moment, the orchestral strings take up the opening violin melody—now hushed, muted, and elongated—while the soloist picks up the original orchestral accompaniment (mixed with the restless second theme) in sharp accents, plucking, and strumming.
Though the concerto’s three movements are linked together without pause, the beginning of the second movement is clear from its instant rambunctiousness. But the movement also holds periods of stasis, which grow into surprising colors. One passage finds the violin in its highest range, whistling almost pitchlessly. Then it hands the effect over to two piccolos before the tuba enters, six octaves below, creating a harrowing chasm of range. The movement ends with a cadenza, which plays with material from both the first and second movements.
With an echo of the concerto’s opening theme, the cadenza bridges into the finale. The trombones enter down low with a phrase that will be repeated—sometimes boldly and sometimes subtly—throughout the movement. This is the passacaglia, an idea Britten borrowed from Baroque music, where a whole piece is built over a repeated ground bass. Britten, however, weakens the form’s usual stability with another harmonic trick: The first four entrances each shift down a half step—almost imperceptible to the listener, but enough to maintain the concerto’s deep-seated unease. Toward the end of the movement, a newfound brightness starts to shine through. In the final measures, the concerto coalesces around the key of D, shedding most of its harmonic complications, while still wavering between sweet major and bitter minor.
The New York Times review of the March 1940 premiere (at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and violinist Antonio Brosa) noted, “the ending is uncommon, very earnest and far from the conventional ‘hoopla’ finale.” The writer also struck a note of restrained praise, observing “there is more in this interesting work than was to be fully grasped or finally assessed at first hearing.”