Benjamin Britten: Phantasy Quartet


Composed whilst Benjamin Britten was studying at the Royal College of Music, Phantasy Quartet was premiered in August 1933 as a BBC broadcast. Subtitled ‘Quartet in one movement for oboe, violin, viola and violoncello’, the interesting orchestration makes it one of Britten’s stand-out chamber works. 

Dedicated to British oboist Léon Goosseens, who also performed in the premiere of the work, the first broadcast also featured members from the International String Quartet. In 1934, Britten took Phantasy to Florence to be performed in the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. Unlike many of Britten’s British contemporaries, he found great success both at home and overseas. From this point Britten was known as an important new voice in Europe. 

The performance in Florence did not come without its difficulties. The concert was half an hour late starting, and when Goossens and the Griller Quartet were about to begin their performance, there was , according to The Musical Times, “a further delay – to silence an orchestra that was rehearsing in an adjoining room.” After these annoyances, Phantasy Quartet received a wholly positive reception from critics and audiences. 


The Music

Set in the form of a 16th century fantasy, this work is set as a single movement. Designed in an arch form Phantasy is described as “consummately crafted.” Britten weaves a pattern of symmetry throughout the piece which first starts in the form of jaunty dotted rhythms played by the strings. The cello in particular is a stand out in the introduction of Phantasy, and is known as one of Britten’s finest instrumentation choices. 

The more lyrical oboe solo glides on top of the jaunty string patterns underneath. The central section is marked ‘Allegro giusto’, which is made up of a series of interludes. One of the interludes is for strings only, which gives the oboist a short break before a slow cadenza passage. 

The fluid oboe passages oppose the harsher string patterns which sees Britten use lots of pizzicato and complex rhythm patterns. The atmosphere is ever-changing in this piece, with spiky march-like sequences following more lyrical and sustained parts of the melody. 

Towards the end of the piece, the opening dotted rhythm returns once more. First triumphant in character and bursting forward with double and triple stopped chords, before reverting back to the mysterious character of the opening. The arch of the piece sees it come full circle by the end, with the idea of symmetry also making more sense here. The piece ends quietly with concentrated intensity.


Final Thoughts

Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet set a benchmark for British composers in the 1940s for European audiences. Britten’s creative writing is showcased in this piece and the uniqueness of the piece really does speak for itself. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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