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Violin Concerto

Britten's early, lyrical Violin Concerto was his reaction to the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War.

Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on November 22, 1913, and died in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. He began work on his Violin Concerto in November 1938, in England. The following May, he left for North America, and he completed the score in St. Jovite, Quebec, on September 29, 1939. He made small revisions to the score in 1950, resulting in the definitive version. Antonio Brosa was soloist in the first performance on March 27, 1940, at Carnegie Hall, with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic.

In addition to the solo violin, the score of Britten’s Violin Concerto calls for 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, cymbals, suspended cymbal, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 34 minutes long.

In late 1936, not long after the first shots were fired in the Spanish Civil War, the poet W.H. Auden informed his associates that he had decided to travel to the front, where he hoped to assist the anti-fascist cause. One of those colleagues was a young Benjamin Britten, whom Auden had recently befriended through work on a series of government-sponsored documentary film projects. The relationship between the erudite, strong-willed poet and the impressionable junior composer was as fateful as it was fruitful; already it had given rise to the pacifist orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, a score Britten acknowledged as “my real opus 1.” Auden took Britten under his wing, giving him an aesthetic education unavailable at any conservatory while also prodding him to embrace his homosexuality. And like much of the British intelligentsia in the crisis-ridden 1930s, the two men were united by a common concern (earnest in Britten’s case, more complexly motivated in Auden’s) to make their art speak to working-class and progressive political struggles.

Days before he left for Spain, Auden inscribed a new poem in a copy of Britten’s Sinfonietta (1932), the latter’s official Opus 1. Entitled “Danse macabre,” its first stanza reads:

It’s farewell to the drawing-room’s civilized cry,
The professor’s sensible whereto and why,
The frock-coated diplomat’s social aplomb,
Now matters are settled with gas and with bomb.

These lines evidently galvanized Britten, who mused in his diary that he would have “lots to do with them.” Although Britten set “Danse macabre” in Ballad of Heroes, his 1939 tribute to the Spanish Civil War’s anti-fascist International Brigades, his Violin Concerto, the score with the opus number immediately following Ballad, seems also to bid farewell the vanishing world that the urbane, untroubled Sinfonietta represented. As a pacifist and later a conscientious objector, Britten could never have followed Auden to Spain (though as it turned out, Auden saw no combat). The question Britten now faced was how to remain an authentically engaged artist in an age where matters were indeed “settled with gas and with bomb.” It was a moral challenge that would continue to inform Britten’s compositional mission, up to his War Requiem (1961-62) and beyond.

Quite apart from Auden, Spain had other resonances for Britten in those years. Britten had been in Barcelona in April 1936 for the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, where he gave an early performance of his Opus 6 Suite alongside the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa, for whom he would later write the Violin Concerto. The tense political atmosphere notwithstanding, the festival’s highlight was the premiere of the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg, who had died unexpectedly the previous December. Only a few years earlier, Britten had expressed a desire to study with Berg—an unconventional choice for a young English composer of his generation. Although the plan never came to fruition, Berg’s singular fusion of modernist economy and Mahlerian immediacy of utterance still left its mark. It comes as little surprise, then, that what Britten heard in Barcelona—he deemed Berg’s concerto “miraculous”—informed his own essay in the genre. Yet the parallels between the two scores are not so much a matter of style or local detail as they are of affinities in overall formal conception. Here Berg’s Wozzeck may offer another interpretive clue. Alluding to that opera’s plot, Britten later recalled that as the Second World War gripped Europe, and as he resettled in North America, where he completed his concerto, “the figure of the lonely, miserable soldier trapped in the great machine of war was something I thought about and felt for deeply.” Not unlike Berg’s “requiem-concerto,” with its wordless program, Britten’s concerto unfolds as a kind of instrumental drama, but one in which the soloist figures, by turns, as vicarious “soldier,” victim, and witness, in each case grappling with the orchestral forces that seem to personify that infernal “machine of war.”

The concerto begins with sounds of distant marching: the quiet tread of timpani, punctuated by cymbal strokes. Brosa indicated that the timpani ostinato was of Iberian provenance—perhaps a slowed-down flamenco pattern—but Britten abstracts it so that it loses any charge of the “exotic.” Bassoon and horn subsequently take up the ostinato, which underpins the soloist’s first appearance. The long-breathed violin cantilena’s vacillation between major and minor, as well as the spare, bittersweet orchestral garb—harp and flutes—evoke Mahler, one of Britten’s favorite composers. (The concerto’s dedicatee, the critic Henry Boys, was one of the first to draw public attention to Mahler’s importance for Britten.) Insistent triple-stopped violin triads signal the transition to a resolute contrasting theme with leaping, angular contours. A fortissimo tutti, offset by martial strings and tenor drum, precedes a brief semi-developmental passage that sees the soloist descend by disguised half steps, while timpani and fragments of the angular theme hover uncertainly in the background. This gives way to a D major recapitulation, where rapt orchestral strings take up the cantilena, supported by deep harp caresses. Each bar of the major-minor theme now has an extra beat, as if this were music far too precious to let go of. A promise of peace and reconciliation, but one all the more poignant for being, finally, unattainable, it is the score’s most Mahlerian passage. Atop the strings, the soloist alternates dreamy recollections of the ostinato with fragile guitar sonorities, in a kind of premonition of the downtrodden child violinist so hauntingly dramatized in Britten’s Winter Words. Timpani and cymbal soon return, again suggesting a far-off march, while the soloist rhapsodizes high above.

The relentless momentum and vicious satire of the Vivace scherzo mark it as one of a number of “danses macabres” that Britten, under Auden’s partial influence, made his signature in the late 1930s. Like Mahler, Britten remembers that death has often been depicted as a fiddler: the soloist very much leads this descent into the inferno. The contrasting trio’s “pleading” melodic turns (Britten’s word) nod loosely at the Roma influence in Spanish folk music, in a direct acknowledgement of the cultural-historical circumstances that informed the concerto’s creation. Here the violin figures as an innocent, menaced by the orchestra, which repeatedly tries to silence its entreaties. Instead of the expected scherzo reprise, a frightening abyss now opens up between piccolos and orchestral strings, twittering vertiginously, and an unaccompanied tuba, clambering ominously from the depths. The passage recalls another stanza of “Danse macabre,” in which Auden announces that “the Devil has broken parole and arisen, / He has dynamited his way out of prison.” It is only following this stroke of timbral imagination that Britten recommences the scherzo in earnest, this time with the soloist tossing off feats of devilish, Paganinian virtuosity. The full orchestra soon appropriates the pleading chant, its earlier vulnerability transformed into venomous threat. When the intensity can hardly be increased, the violin enters with a cadenza, which revisits themes from the first movement and scherzo. It leads without pause into the Passacaglia.

A set of variations using a fixed bass theme to tie together a garland of wide-ranging musical events, the Passacaglia finale represents Britten’s first use of a form that he would come to favor for some of his most personal utterances. Although Britten’s interest in passacaglia form is traditionally attributed to his interest in the music of his countryman, Henry Purcell, the structural conceit—a flexible stream of dramatic incident embedded within an otherwise hard-and-fast variation form—is very much in the Bergian mold (as in the first act of the opera Wozzeck). Dmitri Shostakovich’s use of passacaglia form in his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District may also have been a model: Britten proofread Shostakovich’s score for his publisher in 1935 and reviewed a performance of it enthusiastically the following year.

The passacaglia subject consists of a slow rise-and-fall, a climbing scalar figure closely related to the Vivace trio’s baleful tuba ascent, answered by a corresponding descent in a different mode. The movement begins with a statement of the subject on the trombones—remarkably, their first appearance in the concerto. They soon make way for a string chorale, itself crowned with offerings of the subject from solo trumpet and high winds. The variations proper now ensue, in the following sequence: 1. inquieto violin questioning, supported by the subject in low tremolando strings; 2. acidic horn and woodwind flourishes, the soloist now more discursive; 3. a brief D minor sarabande, led by mournful oboe, redolent of Mahler and Wozzeck; 4. the soloist’s first assumption of the subject, accompanied by delicate saltando strings; 5. a spectral dance between violin, flutes, and timpani; 6. a series of mock-heroic fanfares, the tuba again threatening; 7. a transformed replay of the devil’s post-trio jailbreak, the soloist flittering in tarantella rhythm, before declaiming the subject in triumphant broken chords; and 8. an exultant D major tutti, the subject restored to the trombones. Yet the tragic undertow of what has come before ultimately renders this victory fragile, and the music soon dissolves into a Mahlerian Abschied (“leave-taking”). In this lengthy epilogue, the soloist orates passionately over solemn orchestral chords in slow Beethovenian “fate” rhythm. The violin’s exhortations probe the ambivalence between major and minor that had been such an important feature of the first movement, and the concerto concludes with the soloist oscillating uncertainly between F-natural and F-sharp, the pitches that distinguish D minor and D major. It may have been “farewell to the drawing-room’s civilized cry,” the ending suggests, but too much hung in the balance to abandon hope altogether.

Matthew Mendez

Matthew Mendez is a New Haven-based musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. He is a graduate of Harvard University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Mr. Mendez was the recipient of a 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding music journalism.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Britten’s Violin Concerto featured then-BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe as soloist in November 1993 with James Conlon conducting.