String Quartet No. 1 (Britten)
|by Benjamin Britten|
Britten in the mid-1960s
|Date||21 September 1941|
|Location||Occidental College, Los Angeles|
The quartet was commissioned by arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, while Britten was living in America. At the time, he and Peter Pears were staying as guests of the English piano duo Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson at Escondido near San Diego, California.:152 It was the last important work of his American period.:32 Britten remarked that three months to write it was "Short notice & a bit of a sweat, but I'll do it as the cash will be useful!" The fee was $400 (roughly equivalent to $6700 in 2017).:153, 160
The premiere performance was on 21 September 1941 at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, with the composer present,:159 by the Coolidge Quartet. Britten wrote afterwards to Mrs Coolidge that he "was delighted with the way that they had played my quartet – really first class, both in musicianship and technique". He had already intended to write a piece for the Griller Quartet, and they gave the UK premiere in 1943. The premiere recording was by the Galimir Quartet in 1951.
In 1979, musicologist Peter Evans wrote that the quartet both had and had not secured a place in the repertory.:9, 35 [Note 1] It has been recorded by several distinguished quartets (see Recordings, below).
Analysis and reception
The quartet is in four movements:
- Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo
- Allegro con slancio [Note 2]
- Andante calmo (in 5/4 time)
- Molto vivace
A typical performance takes about 26 minutes. The first and third movements, at about 10 minutes each, are much longer than the second and fourth, at about 3 minutes each. The sonata-form first movement contains alternating andante and allegro passages, the slow and fast music playing for similar durations.:32
On 22 September 1941, Isabel Morse Jones, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, reviewed the premiere. She wrote, "It is distinctly contemporary and the work starts in a wholly unique ethereality. Upper partials barely heard usher in the first subject most gently. Then a rhythm-cleverness changes the whole picture. Britten wanted to bring the music to consciousness mysteriously, as from another world. The idea was all right but the music was not effective". Nevertheless, she suggested that the slow third movement might be titled "In Memoriam for a Lost World", and said that the last movement was "a brilliant success".
According to Britten's biographer Humphrey Carpenter, the tense and restless character of the quartet may reflect an emotional turmoil in the composer; or, perhaps, partly derive from his working conditions – he had had to shut himself in a tool shed and turn on a fan to drown out the sound of his hosts' piano practice.:157
Musicologist Peter Evans analysed the structure of the quartet in detail. He saw resemblances to Beethoven, Bartók and Haydn in some of its features. He wrote, "the extremely subtle relationship between inherent characteristics of the material and its structural working-out showed Britten at twenty-seven to be a master of tonal architecture with scarcely a rival on the English scene".:32-37 To Evans, Britten's use of D major is often, as here, associated with "a luminous harmony of gentle diatonic dissonance".:48
Musicologist Roger Parker called the quartet "a significant milestone in Britten’s composing career", and, brushing aside what he called the "music-analytical Britten industry", also compared it with late Beethoven.
Ben Hogwood summarised critical opinions on the quartet. "Critical reaction to the quartet was largely strong, and the work is held in good regard by authorities on the composer, despite acknowledgement of a few formal quirks and minor shortcomings." Like others, he saw resemblances to Beethoven.
- 1951 – Galimir Quartet, premiere recording Esoteric 78 rpm ES504; re-released (1966) on Saga XID 5259  and (unknown date) on Counterpoint/Esoteric Records CPTS-5504 US 
- 1957 – Paganini Quartet, Liberty SWL 15000 
- 1965 – Fidelio Quartet, Pye Golden Guinea Records GSGC I4025 
- 1972 – Allegri Quartet, Decca LP SXL 6564 
- 1978 – Alberni Quartet, CRD Records CRD 1051 
- 1986 – Endellion Quartet, HMV E 2705021/31/41 
- 1991 – Britten Quartet, Collins Classics 11152 
- 1998 – Maggini Quartet, Naxos 8.553883 
- 2005 – Belcea Quartet EMI Classics CD 7243 5 57968 2 0 
- 2013 – Takács Quartet, Hyperion CD CDA68004 
- It is unclear which of these two incompatible statements reflects Evans' opinion.
- The unusual musical designation con slancio uses the Italian word slancio, a dash, leap or surge. Isabel Morse Jones, a music critic who attended the premiere, interpreted con slancio as meaning the rhythm of a garden swing.
- Carpenter, Humphrey (1992). Benjamin Britten: A Biography. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-14324-5.
- Evans, Peter (1979). The Music of Benjamin Britten. London, Melbourne and Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. ISBN 0-460-04350-1.
- Mitchell, Donald; Reid, Philip, eds. (22 June 1998). Letters from a Life Vol 2: 1939-45: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten. Faber & Faber. p. Letter 342. ISBN 978-0571194001. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
- Hogwood, Brian (11 September 2013). "Listening to Britten – String Quartet no.1 in D major, Op.25". goodmorningbritten.wordpress.com. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
- Parker, Roger (25 April 2013). "Britten and the String Quartet: A Classical Impulse–String Quartet No.1". Gresham College. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
- Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 at AllMusic. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
- Mitchell, Donald; Reid, Philip, eds. (22 June 1998). Letters from a Life Vol 2: 1939-45: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten. Faber & Faber. p. Letter 425. ISBN 978-0571194001. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
- Benjamin Britten – Phantasy Quartet In E Minor Opus 2 For Oboe,Violin,Viola And Violoncello / String Quartet No.1 In D Major Opus 25 at Discogs
- Benjamin Britten / The Galimir Quartet, Harold Gomberg – Fantasy For Oboe And Strings / String Quartet No. 1 In D at Discogs (list of releases)
- Paganini String Quartet – Benjamin Britten / Robert Schumann at Discogs
- Britten, Fidelio Quartet – String Quartets at Discogs
- Britten, Allegri String Quartet – String Quartets at Discogs (list of releases)
- D. Shostakovich, B. Britten, The Alberni Quartet – Sostakovich: Piano Quintet In G Minor Op. 57 / Britten: String Quartet No. 1 In D Major, Op. 25 [sic] at Discogs
- Benjamin Britten – Endellion String Quartet – Complete Music For String Quartet (String Quartets Nos.1-3 · String Quartet In D · Rhapsody · Phantasy For String Quartet · Phantasy For Oboe And String Trio · Quartettino · Elegy For Solo Viola · Three Divertimenti · Alla Marcia) at Discogs (list of releases)
- Benjamin Britten/The Britten Quartet – String Quartet In D/Simple Symphony/String Quartet No. 1 at Discogs
- Britten – Maggini String Quartet – String Quartets Vol. 1 at Discogs
- Britten – Belcea Quartet – String Quartets 1, 2 & 3; 3 Divertimenti at Discogs
- Britten, Takács Quartet – String Quartets 1, 2 & 3 at Discogs