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Composed: 1941

About this Piece

In the summer of 1941, a 27-year-old Benjamin Britten arrived in the sunny town of Escondido just outside San Diego. Britten, a pacifist, left England as a conscientious objector when war broke out a few years earlier alongside his friend tenor Peter Pears. Staying mostly on the east coast, his California summer proved extremely fruitful as he rediscovered the poetry of George Crabbe, which planted the seeds for Peter Grimes.

When he wasn’t reading, Britten worked on a commission from the wealthy music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a string quartet to be premiered by the Coolidge Quartet she sponsored. Premiered at Los Angeles’ Occidental College, Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 in many ways prefigures ideas later explored in Peter Grimes. The opening movement with its high and closely written violins and viola underpinned by cello pizzicato is reminiscent of the opera’s Sea Interludes. The introspective Andante calmo features 5/4 rhythms evocative of a rocky seascape (be it off the coast of England or California.) Scholars and critics saw the quartet as a significant milestone in the young Britten’s career, particularly for its harmony and thematic development. Musicologist Peter Evan drew allusions to Beethoven, Bartók, and Haydn, saying it showed “Britten at 27 to be a master of tonal architecture with scarcely a rival on the English scene.” Ricky O’Bannon