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About this Piece

Composed: 1939
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: strings, plus solo piano and string quartet

First LA Phil performances

In May 1939 Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears left Britain and sailed to Canada. Alarmed at the deteriorating situation in Europe and deeply pacifist at heart, they believed they could do more good in the New World than in the Old. Thanks to the success of early works such as the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Britten’s music was known in Canada, and he soon received a commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a new work for strings. They then crossed the border to the U.S., and after a few days in New York they settled for the summer in Woodstock, NY, where Britten was struck by the intensity of the heat, something he could never have experienced in England.

This turned his mind to the sun god Apollo and to Keats’ poem Hyperion, which tells of the fall of the Titans and the coming of the new gods, the Olympians. Hyperion was the sun god whose place Apollo took, invested in his divine role by Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. In a program note for the first performance, which was given in Toronto on August 27, 1939, Britten wrote: “Apollo, called to be the new god of beauty by Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, foresees his destiny; and in one final convulsion throw off his mortal form. He stands before us – the new, dazzling Sun-god, quivering with radiant vitality.” Keats phrased it as the “immortal fairness of his limbs,” an obvious point of appeal to Britten, whose fascination with young male beauty was something he had always to conceal.

This consideration may be what caused Britten to withdraw the work, which was not heard again in his lifetime. He may also have been dissatisfied with the music itself, as he was with a great number of his early works. In conveying the vivid brilliance of the sun, it scarcely moves from the triad of A major, with constant emphasis on the notes A and E reinforced by the open strings of the violins and the repeated scales of A major played by the piano soloist. There is an obsessive character to the work, which displays Britten’s habitual inventiveness in writing for instruments, with some remarkable effects obtained from the string quartet soloists and the string ensemble.

Britten himself played the solo piano part in the first performance. The second performance of Young Apollo was given at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1979, and it was first published in 1982.

— Hugh Macdonald