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About this Piece

The Bach suites provided a compositional model for Benjamin Britten's three suites for unaccompanied cello, but the inspiration was the characterful, commanding playing of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. In September 1960, Britten (1913-1976) attended the London premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich's recent Cello Concerto No. 1, in which Rostropovich - the work's dedicatee - was the soloist. The British composer and the Russian cellist struck up a rich and productive musical friendship, which was the direct source of five enduring works. Britten began work almost immediately on a Cello Sonata, which Rostropovich premiered the next summer at the Aldeburgh Festival with Britten playing the piano part. A Symphony for Cello and Orchestra followed, Rostropovich playing the premiere in Moscow in 1964, with Britten conducting the Moscow Philharmonic. That winter Britten began the first of his three Suites for unaccompanied cello; Rostropovich premiered it at the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival.

Rostropovich was a commanding Bach player, and Britten's Suite is full of the techniques and textures developed in the Bach suites. Like the Bach suites, Britten's First Cello Suite is in six basic movements, although more in the manner of character pieces than pure dances. Britten, however, uses an expansive, double-stopped Canto as a framing device. It opens the Suite and then returns after every two movements, a large-scale version of the Baroque ritornello.

The first movement proper is a fugue, in the sort of implied counterpoint that Bach employed more often in his solo violin works than in his cello suites. Athletic and mordantly witty, it fades away in harmonics like a musical Cheshire cat. The long-limbed, un-metered Lamento develops an expressive theme oriented toward E, and then turns itself upside down and heads toward E-flat; the ensuing tension between E and E-flat as a tonal center is resolved only in the final bar.

Each movement of the Suite leads directly into the next. The brief, transposed Canto Secondo introduces the Serenata, an entirely plucked movement with the staggering swagger of drunken flamenco. The Marcia also makes Spanish guitar references, to the tradition of pieces imitating holy day processionals. Here the cello similarly suggests the approach of a fife and drum corps, passages in harmonics alternating with rhythmic rapping on open strings with the wood of the bow, getting louder as the parade nears, then fading away as it passes.

The chromatic tension and ambiguity of the Canto Terzo gives way to the Bordone (a term for drone strings) movement, anchored on a drone D throughout, with virtuosic figuration - including left-hand pizzicato - above and below the drone. The Moto Perpetuo buzzes with dizzying energy, the flight of a bumblebee on steroids. Britten gradually introduces phrases of the Canto, in its original shape and key, into this volatile mix, with a triple-forte, semi-tone stinger at the end.

- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications.