String Quartet No.2

Benjamin Britten

String Quartet No.2 in C major

Op. 36

About this work

In 1945 the British musical world commemorated the 200th anniversary of the death of English baroque composer Henry Purcell. Although Britten was said to keep always a copy of Haydn string quartets at his beside, he was not a natural sonata-form composer. But the few times he did use this form (which is the natural form of the string quartet) he employed it very originally and very well. The first movement has the expected two contrasting subjects (although one of them spins off yet a third theme). All of them, however, are derived from the same wide leap of a major tenth (the interval spanned in a leap from C to the E an octave higher). This movement, marked "Allegro calmo, " is an economical, consoling piece with muted contrasts. At its end all three themes are played at once. The contrasting middle movement is a sinister night piece. Together they take up only a bit more than ten minutes.

The bulk of the quartet is found in the third movement, lasting 18 minutes. It is here that the obvious tribute to Purcell is found, for it has the name "Chacony, " Purcell's term for "chaconne, " a form that that baroque master had made his own. It is in the form of nine-bar ground bass theme with 21 variations. It is magnificent both structurally and musically, among the finest ground-bass movements ever written for string quartet. Throughout the quartet Britten exhibits his special skill in creating fresh sounds for string ensemble. It is a masterpiece in the already-rich repertoire of the string quartet.