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Composed: 1939

Length: c. 33 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd & 3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, tenor drum, triangle, and whip), harp, strings, and solo violin

About this Piece

The Violin Concerto that Britten was working on during his stay with Copland was completed in September in Quebec. It had its premiere in March 1940, with Antonio Brosa the soloist and John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic. Britten revised the work in 1950, 1954, and 1965.

“It was written in 1939, & although it has been played quite a lot here & abroad I have never been happy about the form of it,” Britten wrote in October 1950 to Albert Goldberg (a Britten champion then music critic at the Los Angeles Times). “The fact that Heifetz was going to play the work spurred me on to looking [at] it again from this point of view, & that I have just done. There is no structural change in the work – a shortening here & a rewriting there is all I’ve done. There is no new material at all, although a complete rewriting of a violin passage in the last movement is a new development of existing stuff. The cadenza is shortened, & a rather embarrassing chord for orchestra in the middle of it is removed. I hope what I have done is to leave the work as it would have been had I been able to write it in 1939 with my present experience. I think I bit off then a bit more than I could chew! – especially in the last movement.”

The edgy ambivalence of the Concerto is expressed harmonically rather than structurally, however, in the friction between F and F-sharp, between the dark flat side of the force and its bright sharp antithesis. The timpani’s opening gambit, a rhythmic figure that becomes an important ostinato obsession, points not just to F natural, but F as a harmonic center. The soloist seems to confirm this with its lyrical entrance. Goaded by the ostinato, this introspective theme gains passion until the soloist abruptly thrums repeated D-major chords with their F-sharps. Harmonic hijinks ensue, but the soloist is ultimately to carry the movement to D major, taking over the rhythmic ostinato in the restatement of the opening, with more a sense of conversion than of return. Britten makes room for an insinuating resurgence of D minor (with its F natural) before the end, with the soloist blossoming in D-major harmonics.

The scherzo goes off like a rocket in D major, but eight quick bars later we’re in F major and by the time the bassoons take up the vigorous rhythmic figure it suggests E minor. For a readily adaptable theme the soloist offers basically an oddly configured rising scale (and what goes up must come down). After a contrasting trio section this theme returns, but in the tuba, rising under interlocked filigree for two piccolos. A return of the trio section leads directly into an elaborate cadenza, in which the soloist integrates the previous movements rhythmically and thematically and reaffirms the haunted flat side of Britten’s harmonic fantasies.

Held in reserve until now, the trombones come in under the end of the cadenza, picking up the soloist’s clarified scale as the stepwise ground of the concluding Passacaglia. In the course of his career, Britten would demonstrate a remarkable affinity for old Baroque forms of continuous variation, and this tautly contrapuntal, deftly orchestrated Passacaglia develops extraordinary power. It seems to strive for D-major apotheosis but ends as an enigmatic elegy. The uncommitted orchestra lingers on open fifths (D-A) while the soloist vacillates, trilling between F and F-sharp (which Britten gives in the score as G-flat).

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.