Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)
String Quartet No.1 in D Op. 25
1 Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo
2 Allegretto con slancio
3 Andante calmo
4 Molto vivace
Between the first private performance of his String Quartet in D major of 1931 and his first published Quartet (Op. 25 and also in D major) written ten years later, Britten had established himself as a composer of international repute following the premiere of his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge at the Salzburg Festival in 1937. The Quartet is one of a number of works, which included Paul Bunyan, and the Sinfonia da Requiem, conceived and performed during Britten’s three war-time years in America, and was commissioned by Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge – a wealthy American patroness of chamber music – who paid the composer a handsome $400.
It was composed during the summer of 1941 in California when Britten and Pears were staying with Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, a British piano duo for whom Britten had already written an Introduction and Rondo alla Burlesca. The Quartet’s first movement (Andante sostenuto) begins with an extended opening paragraph, striking for its luminous sonorities. High-ranging violins and viola are underpinned by pizzicato cello, whose arpeggio figurations initially lend harmonic support but soon undermine the home key of D major. Only after the return of this reverie, following a brusque Allegro vivo passage, does it become clear that the movement is based on the juxtaposition of bold contrasts of tempo and mood that alternately soothe and invigorate. It is almost as if memories of Britten’s native Suffolk coast and the vigour of California have become distilled in the Quartet’s oppositional landscape.
Incisive rhythms, pizzicato articulation and a preponderance of triplets and trills characterise the short second movement (Allegretto con slancio), but it is in the halting 5/4 rhythms of the atmospheric third movement (Andante calmo) – which hauntingly prefigure Peter Grimes – that Britten expresses his true musical personality. After a slow first section each instrument seems to want to break free from the movement’s melancholy, transformed to a quiet but inconclusive rapture in the final bars. As if to dismiss any sense of lingering doubt, the Quartet concludes with an exuberant and witty finale marked Molto vivace. Tensions are never quite resolved, however, and perhaps reflect Britten’s own feelings as he confessed in a letter of June 1941: “I am homesick, and really only enjoy scenery that reminds me of England.”