Violin Concerto (Britten)

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Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto, Op. 15, was written from 1938 to 1939 and dedicated to Henry Boys, his former teacher at RCM.[1] It was premiered in New York, on 29 March 1940 by the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa with the New York Philharmonic conducted by John Barbirolli. A revised version of the concerto appeared in the 1950s, including alterations of the solo violin part prepared with the assistance of Manoug Parikian.


The concerto is scored for solo violin and an orchestra of three flutes (second and third flutes doubling piccolo), two oboes (second oboe doubling cor anglais), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, cymbals, triangle, bass drum, side drum, tenor drum), harp and strings.


The concerto is written in three movements:

  1. Moderato con moto – Agitato – Tempo primo –
  2. Vivace – Animando – Largamente – Cadenza
  3. Passacaglia: Andante lento (Un poco meno mosso)

This form, although in three movements, is highly unlike that of concertos from the Classical and Romantic eras. First used in the First Violin Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev, this design is also evident in the concertos of William Walton and later in Shostakovich's first violin concerto, that has a structure that clearly reminds Britten's concerto.


The work opens with a series of timpani strokes, a reminder perhaps of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. The rhythm is taken up by the bassoon and other instruments, persisting as an ostinato throughout the entire work. The violin enters with a song-like lament, soaring above the orchestra. The music is soon interrupted by a more militaristic and percussive secondary theme.

The ensuing second movement, cast as a wild, moto perpetuo scherzo, unmistakably recalls Prokofiev. The movement culminates in an impressive cadenza which, while recalling musical material from both the first and second movements, acts as an organic link straight into the finale.

As the finale, Britten uses a passacaglia: a set of variations on a ground bass, in the tradition of the Baroque chaconnes by Purcell and Bach. The ground bass, tonally unstable, is initially introduced by the trombone, as the violin recalls its lyrical theme from the first movement. Individual variations unfold, taking up characters of song, dance, capriccio and march. By the end, the ground bass is reduced to chant-like reminiscences; the orchestra leaves hints of an unmistakable D major chord, while the soloist is left undecided in a trill between the notes F-natural and G flat.[2]


Year Soloist Conductor
Format: Record label
Catalogue Number
1950s Antonio Brosa Ian Whyte,
BBC Scottish Orchestra
(9 Apr.1952)
Audio LP: Stereo Records & Tapes
Cat: SRT/Custom 009
(private release)
1960s Nikola Grumlikova Peter Maag,
Prague Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Supraphon
Cat: 1106532 (1991)
1970s Ruggiero Ricci G.Brott,
SWF Sinfonie Orchester
(live - doubtful venue, conductor and orchestra)
Audio CD: One-Eleven
Cat: EPR-96020 (1996)
1970 Mark Lubotsky Benjamin Britten,
English Chamber Orchestra
Audio CD: Decca
Cat: 417 308-2
1974 Rodney Friend John Pritchard,
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Audio LP: EMI
Cat: CFP 40250
1977 Ida Haendel Paavo Berglund,
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Audio LP: EMI
Cat: ASD 3483

1996 Serguei Azizian Osmo Vänskä,
Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra
Audio CD: Alto
Cat: BAX3661 (2013)
1997 Rebecca Hirsch Takuo Yuasa,
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Naxos
Cat: 8.553882
2001 Lydia Mordkovitch Richard Hickox,
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Chandos
Cat: CHAN 9910
2003 Maxim Vengerov Mstislav Rostropovich,
London Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: EMI Classics
Cat: 0724355751027
2004 Frank Peter Zimmermann Manfred Honeck,
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Sony
Cat: S70316C 88697439992
2005 Daniel Hope Paul Watkins,
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Warner Classics
Cat: 2564-60291-2
2009 Janine Jansen Paavo Järvi,
London Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Decca
Cat: 000289 478 1530 3
2011 Wanda Wiłkomirska Witold Rowicki,
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Audio CD: Orchestral Concert CDs
Cat: CD12/2011
2012 Anthony Marwood Ilan Volkov,
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Hyperion
Cat: CDA67801
2013 James Ehnes Kirill Karabits,
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Onyx
Cat: BBX2835 (2012)
2014 Gil Shaham Juanjo Mena,

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Audio CD: Canary Classics,

Cat: CC12

2016 Vilde Frang James Gaffigan,


Audio CD: Warner Classics
Cat: 0825646009213


  1. ^ Henry Boys - Musician, teacher, writer on music
  2. ^ Paul Kildea, ed. (2008). Britten on Music, p. 365. Oxford University Press, Oxford.