Phantasy Quartet

Benjamin Britten

Phantasy Quartet

Op. 2

About this work

Britten's fondness for the oboe shows in his orchestral writing. Time and again, he used the high, clear sound of the oboe to pierce through the general sound, often using it as if a single voice against the world.

The first third of the twentieth century is marked by works by many British composers in the form of chamber music named "Fantasy." This is simply because of the periodic issuing by a wealthy patron of a commissioning prize for such works. Britten composed this Phantasy Quartet for the great British oboist Leon Goossens. It brought him national and international attention, being performed on the BBC in 1933 and at the annual International Society of Contemporary Music Festival in 1934, an extraordinary occurrence for the work of a composer who was still, at time of composition, a teenager.

The work also exhibits a formal procedure which Britten was to use numerous times throughout his career, that of "framing" a composition in one way or another. In this case, the work begins and ends with a legato oboe song over a string accompaniment consisting of one of Britten's typical disjunct march ideas. Britten builds the work in an arch form comprising, within the frame of the arch, a sonata form of development and recapitulation, a development section (in a very slow tempo) occupying the central position of the arch. It is an uncommonly inventive form, executed with considerable technical skill. Within all this technique, the music is uncommonly expressive.

Britten does not attempt to deny the oboe its natural tendency to predominate in this ensemble, so that work stands or falls on the artistry of the soloist on that instrument. In return, Britten gave the soloist an extraordinarily interesting and engaging piece of music.