November 21, 2013

Britten for Beginners Playlist

By Michael Zwiebach

The last of the year’s major composer anniversaries comes today: Benjamin Britten would be 100 today. If getting to know this great composer’s music is on your to-do list, you can begin with this playlist of pieces from his most celebrated works as well as some lesser-known music.

  1. Theme from The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Richard Hickox, conductor
    The obvious starting point.
  2. “Playful Pizzicato” from A Simple Symphony, English Chamber Orchestra
    Another welcoming work with a sunny disposition.
  3. “Cakes and Ale” from Suite on English Folk Tunes “A Time There Was,” Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Richard Hickox.
    A fantastically whimsical treatment of a folk tune, which sort of evaporates at the end, perhaps under the influence of too much cake and ale.
  4. “Nocturne” from Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Peter Pears, tenor, Barry Tuckwell, horn, London Symphony, Benjamin Britten, conductor
    One of the many song cycles conceived for Britten’s life partner and collaborator, Peter Pears, this one is taken from various poems on the subject of night. This setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Nocturne” includes a call for bugles, which the horn answers in the music.
  5. “Dawn” No. 1 of Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, London Symphony Orchestra, Steuart Bedford, conductor
    Britten’s breakthrough opera contains fantastic tone paintings of the emotions of the characters through the prism of music about the sea, against which the opera is set. This is the first of them.
  6. “Wolcum Yule” from A Ceremony of Carols, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury, conductor
    Britten wrote tons of choral music, but this setting of old English carols is the clear audience favorite.
  7. “Galliard” from Courtly Dances from Gloriana, London Symphony Orchestra, Steuart Bedford, conductor
    Though Britten’s sixth opera has never become a favorite in the opera house, excerpts show the quality of its music.
  8. Fugue from The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
    This great finale takes the tune in extremely short note values and makes a fugue out of it, which the whole orchestra joins in with increasing hilarity, until the deep brass, inevitably bring back the tune in its original majesty, pushing it to the fore against the rest of the orchestra, which refuses to stop having a good time. The timpani end by banging out the rhythm of the theme, against the final orchestral flourishes.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.