Monday, November 20, 2017

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Britten!

Benjamin Britten, 1938
Wednesday marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (born November 22, 1913). As a young man in his early 20s he had achieved a certain celebrity, principally as a resourceful composer for documentary films, but it remained localized until this work, and this recording of it, brought him international fame:

Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
Boyd Neel String Orchestra conducted by Boyd Neel
Recorded July 15, 1938
Decca X 226 through X 228, three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC file, 65.91 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 38.41 MB)

This is Britten's first work to be generally recognized as a masterpiece, written to Boyd Neel's commission for a 1937 appearance at the International Society of Contemporary Music Festival in Salzburg. The ISCM requested that Neel bring a new work by an English composer, and Neel despaired of finding one on short notice until he thought of Britten's high-quality (and speedily written) film work, some of which he had conducted in the studios. Neel's hunch that the young man might quickly furnish a worthwhile score was amply repaid. Britten's initial draft of the Bridge Variations was sketched in ten days, and four weeks later the piece had been fully scored - "one of the most astonishing feats of composition in my experience," said Neel.

This set was reviewed in the November, 1938, Gramophone Shop Supplement (in which it was offered for sale at $7,25, including album). "The discs are the first example of [Britten's] work to reach this country," said the anonymous reviewer. "The principal shortcoming of the present work is the inclusion of genre pieces like the Aria Italiana and Wiener Walz, very cleverly turned out but definitely lessening the effect of the remarkable Funeral March, Chant and Fugue. There is some remarkably powerful and eloquent writing in these last sections, writing that on first hearing mark Britten as a man to be watched. The whole work is an unusually attractive and interesting example of contemporary music on discs, and its best pages are an indication that not only Britain but the world has a highly significant new force to reckon with." Quite a prescient review, although I can't agree with the assertion that the lighter sections constitute shortcomings!


  1. Alternate links:

  2. Many thanks, Bryan! I fell in love with these Variations at school but haven't listened to them much recently, so it's great to have your excellent transfer of this fine and important set, and to read your very informative post! All the best, as ever, Nick

  3. A masterpiece under an expert. Thanks a lot for this rare and historical recording.