Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony
Composed between 1933-34, Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony was based on a number of smaller works that the composer had written when he was very young:
“This Simple Symphony is entirely based on material from works which the composer wrote between the ages of nine and twelve. Although the development of these themes is in many places quite new, there are large stretches of work which are taken bodily from the early pieces – save for the re-scoring for strings.” [Taken from the front of the published score]
Dedicated to his viola teacher Audrey Alston, Simple Symphony was clearly an emotional project for the young composer. Written for a small string orchestra, the symphony was Britten’s attempt getting into the amateur and school markets. The premiere for the work happened in 1934 with Britten conducting an amateur orchestra in Norwich.
Four short movements make up the structure of Britten’s Simple Symphony, with each one displaying different youthful themes from Britten’s pen. The composer also gave slightly comical names to the movements, which shows his humour and his neoclassical turn.
Movement I – Boisterous Bourée
The opening movement is based on a Bourée dance. The vigorous bowing here creates light and shade with the central lyrical sections. Traditionally, a Bourée would be used in a Baroque suite, and this is a way that Britten brought the Baroque style to the 20th century. The motivic interplay between the strings keeps the integrity of this opening movement, and the miniature sonata-form structure also supports this. The build up of texture and dynamics towards the end makes the quiet ending even more effective.
Movement II – Playful Pizzicato
As the title suggests, Playful Pizzicato opens with a quick pizzicato theme from the whole ensemble. The fast pace creates the excitement within the orchestra, and the scherzo style adds to the cheeky character of the movement. The nimble plucking shows the diversity of sound across the ensemble, with Britten capitalising on this to create waves of sound. The bouncy melody and the stomping accents complement each other, and they finally unite at the end to finish this movement off together.
Movement III – Sentimental Sarabande
Similarly to the Bourée, the traditional Baroque sarabande is the subject for the lamenting third movement. Written in a much newer style, which has often been likened to that of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius, the modal-like melody sweeps over the ensemble to create peaks and troughs within the music. The longest movement of the four, Britten thoroughly explores the themes presented here. The tinge of sadness threaded throughout this movement is then heightened in the muted coda section.
Movement IV – Frolicsome Finale
The opening unison burst of sound soon moves off into an exciting play for the spotlight between the strings. The vivacious upper strings melody goes against the bold lower strings, and the two being to enter a musical dialogue. Britten brings together themes and techniques from the past three movements to make up the structure of the finale. From cheeky pizzicato interludes to the dance-like style of the Bourée, there is a big pot of sound to be explored here. The theme from the Sarabande is then played in unison before the coda is initiated by a pizzicato pluck in unison. The quick pace of the coda creates a fizz of excitement before the final sustained notes are played to end the symphony.
Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony was based on a collection of melodies and small works that he had written when he was very young. When he completed the work in his final year at the Royal College of Music, he wanted to show his growth as a musician and composer up to that point, and that he certainly did.
Ⓒ Alex Burns