Quartet No.3 Op.94 [1975]

Composer: Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)
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Composer: Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)

Performance date: 03/07/2017

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1975

Duration: 00:28:32

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello]) - [quartet]

In February 1976,
BBC Radio Three broadcast the first complete performance of
for thirty-three years. Britten
was profoundly moved to re-encounter this forgotten work and all the
memories it aroused of Auden, of the American years, of his own
youth, energy and vitality, especially given his awful physical
condition. In 1973 he had had a major operation to replace the aortic
valve in his heart. This bought him three extra years but he was an
invalid for the rest of his life, tiring very easily and having huge
difficulty composing.

The Third Quartet
was both Britten’s swansong and his homage to his great
contemporary and friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, who had died that
summer. He began it soon after completing
and he had four movements completed
before going on holiday – in a wheelchair attended by friends and a
nurse – to Venice, the scene of his final opera completed two years
earlier. It was in Venice he wrote the final
inevitably subtitled
La Serenissima, the music
recalling the bells of the church of Santa Maria della Salute as well
Death in Venice. As with Shostakovich’s final work, the
Viola Sonata, the composer did not live to hear the premiere, which
took place two weeks after his death.

Each of the movements has a subtitle,
the first, Duets, features the instruments playing in pairs –
each of the possible pairings of instruments engage in an operatic
duet while continually expanding its thematic ideas. This gives the
movement a strongly dramatic impetus and the various duets create
some remarkable sonorities. The first Scherzo, Ostinato, is
brief and very violent with a quieter chorale-like central section.
The movement ends mid-phrase as if struck down.

The third, Solo, is intensely
beautiful with the first violin soaring stratospherically above the
others with a deeply touching melody of a Bach-like purity. The
central section, Messiaen-like, bursts out into ecstatic birdsong,
afterwards the violin’s melody returns more movingly than before,
while the ending takes on a miraculous luminosity as the other
instruments float up to meet the violin.

Burlesque is an obsessive dance,
almost in the manner of Shostakovich’s hard-driven Scherzos. The
skeletal Trio is remarkable for the eerie whistling sound produced by
the viola playing behind the bridge. The dance returns in a
magnificently sonorous repeat. The finale’s operatic Recitative
prepares us for the glorious Passacaglia, whose calm, long
drawn-out, stately theme works its way almost unbearably into our
hearts as we realise this is a great composer’s last farewell. The
final bars remain unresolved as Britten himself said: I want the
work to end with a question.

Francis Humphrys