Skip to page content

About this Piece

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote his Phantasy Quartet when he was nineteen and enrolled at the Royal College of Music. He felt that he wasn't learning much there, and later remarked that "when you're immensely full of energy and ideas, you don't want to waste your time being taken through elementary exercises in dictation." He observed that "my musical education was perhaps more outside the college than in it." Though his composition teacher at the Royal College was John Ireland, a prominent composer, he continued to see his old teacher, Frank Bridge "almost daily and I showed him every 'major' work."

If Britten didn't think much of the Royal College faculty, they hardly knew what to make of him and his already modern style. When he entered the College at age 16, one of the professors who examined Britten for a scholarship (which was awarded) said he didn't think it was decent that an English public schoolboy of Britten's age should be writing that kind of music.

In his three years at the Royal College, Britten actually got far more recognition in London's professional concert world than at the school. He had a number of works premiered in London, but only one of his pieces was performed at the College, and that one had already been performed elsewhere.

The Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings was written for a competition for single-movement chamber works established in 1905 by Walter Wilson Cobbett, a wealthy amateur musician and professional writer on chamber music. "Phantasy" harked back to the fantasies for viols that were a prominent part of English music in the 1600s. The distinguishing feature of the old fantasies, in Cobbett's eye if not always in reality, was that they included sections in different rhythms in a single continuous movement. To the early 20th century, they looked like a condensation of several sonata movements into one.

The Cobbett competition drew Phantasies from some of Britain's best: winners included Bridge and Ireland. In July 1932, Britten won the Cobbett Prize for his Phantasy string quintet of the previous year. That fall, he composed the Phantasy quartet for oboe and strings. It did not win another Cobbett Prize, but it did get performed in a BBC radio broadcast in August 1933 by Leon Goossens, the leading English oboist of the day. Britten wrote in his diary "Goossens does his part splendidly. The rest - although they are intelligent players, aren't really first class instrumentalists." Nonetheless, the broadcast, and a concert performance by the same players that November, did much to establish Britten's reputation in Britain. The London Times critic praised its originality, and added that "by comparison John Ireland's 15-year-old pianoforte trio sounded old-fashioned," making it clear which way the future was heading. A festival performance in Florence the following year gave a big boost to Britten internationally.

The Quartet has a formal intricacy that fascinates analysts but is completely lost on the ordinary listener. It has been characterized as an "arch," as two sonatas superimposed on each other, and, perhaps most helpfully, as a sonata with a slow movement inserted between the development and recapitulation. In the introduction (marked andante alla marcia), the oboe stays aloof from the strings, singing while they march. A quicker section follows in which themes are introduced and developed. Where the recapitulation would normally arrive to reestablish familiar material, Britten instead has something completely different in both music and instrumentation: a slow section without the oboe. When it finally gets around to recapitulation, the music returns in a mirror image of the way it first arrived: first the quick exposition, then the opening slow march. At the last, the lone cello repeats the first seven bars of the piece, in reverse order.

-- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts.