Simple Symphony

Benjamin Britten

Simple Symphony

Op. 4

About this work

At the age of 20, perhaps feeling nostalgic, Britten set about recasting a handful of old piano tunes and song melodies from his pre-teen years into a four-movement work for string orchestra. Entitled A Simple Symphony (1933-1934), the work contains the irresistible charm of youth projected as an array of musical colors that, although combined in a relatively sophisticated manner, retain at least the impression of innocence. The symphony's widespread popularity can be attributed to several factors, among the most significant of which is its idiomatic string writing -- scoring of such technical ease that amateur ensembles and student orchestras can feel confident in undertaking it. Perhaps the real reason for the work's appeal, however, is the way that Britten refuses to wholly subordinate the pleasantly cliché-ridden fruits of his youth to the more sophisticated musical syntax that, by the mid-1930s, was emerging as the driving force behind such works as the choral Te Deum (1934) and the orchestral Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937).

However near and dear these melodies may have been to Britten's heart, he clearly felt it necessary to apply a substantial amount of touch-up as he forged them into a symphonic form. For example, the colorful twists and turns of the first movement, "Boisterous Bourée," do not really represent Britten as a child composer as much as they do a maturing composer's desire to reawaken the spirit of an earlier time. However, the movement does retain a certain juvenile spirit, especially in its heavy emphasis on the melodic contours and rhythmic cadences of English folk song.

The Presto possibile "Playful Pizzicato," with its rounded, wittily arpeggiated theme, is just what its title would seem to indicate. The trio section makes effective use of an irregular phrase structure (i.e., empty bars shape the gestures into three-bar groups). Its material is derived from a 1924 Scherzo for piano and a song that apparently dates from later in that same year.

The "Sentimental Saraband" unfolds in a straightforward ternary (ABA) form, its somber main theme first announced by the violins over a stubborn G pedal in the cellos and basses. A second melody, originally part of a waltz, is, by comparison, quite translucent, as are the gently repeated chords of the coda.

After an introduction made up of naively dramatic open fifths, the "Frolicsome Finale" takes off with a subject that recalls the cello theme of the "Boisterous Bourée"; the chromatically descending inner lines are, however, unique to this final movement. After a contrasting second theme, the first idea undergoes development. Soon enough a recapitulation arrives, during which the second theme is cast in an almost heroic light. A grand pause ushers in the kinetic coda.