Hyperion Records

String Quartet No 1 in D major, Op 25
composer
1941; commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge; first performed in Los Angeles in September 1941

Recordings
'Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3' (CDA68004)
Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3
Buy by post £10.50 CDA68004  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Hyperion monthly sampler – November 2013' (HYP201311)
Hyperion monthly sampler – November 2013
HYP201311  Download-only monthly sampler   No longer available
Details
Movement 1: Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo
Movement 2: Allegretto con slancio
Movement 3: Andante calmo
Movement 4: Molto vivace
Track 4 on CDA68004 [3'56]
Track 2 on HYP201311 [3'56] Download-only monthly sampler

String Quartet No 1 in D major, Op 25
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In July 1941, while still in the States, Britten received a $400 commission from an American patroness, Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, which presented him with the opportunity to compose his ‘official’ String Quartet No 1. Mrs Coolidge was a passionate devotee of the genre, and had already commissioned Bartók’s Fifth Quartet (1934) and Schoenberg’s Fourth (1936). Britten’s contribution was composed in the humble surroundings of a tool shed located in the garden of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, the British husband-and-wife piano duo who were his hosts during a stay in California. The finished quartet was first performed in September 1941 in Los Angeles, and earned its composer the Library of Congress Coolidge Medal for Eminent Services to Chamber Music. It is evident from Britten’s correspondence that his attitude to the commission was somewhat ambivalent. To his friend Elizabeth Mayer he confessed that the project would be ‘a bit of a sweat to do it so quickly, but I’ll do it as the cash will be useful!’, and to his older brother Robert he reported:

I’m to be presented with a gold medal at the Library of Congress in Washington in October, by Mrs Sprague Coolidge (the rich patroness of music, friend of Frank Bridge) for services to chamber music! Gettin’ quite distinguished arn’t I? But it doesn’t mean any money, unless I sell the medal, which wouldn’t be quite quite. Still the old girl has just bought a String Quartet off me for quite a sum, which will keep the wolf away for a bit, so I can’t complain.

More seriously, however, Britten told his benefactress that he rated the quartet as ‘my best piece so far’, and the Times critic wrote after its first English performance by the Griller Quartet in April 1943: ‘It looks as though he has begun to advance from his easy accomplishment into some new phase of development in his thought which will be watched with interest.’ The reviewer went on to describe the musical idiom as ‘unconventional’ and ‘experimental’ with its ‘harshly contrasted elements’, referring to the juxtapositions of passages in slow and quick tempos in the first movement inspired by Beethoven’s B flat major Quartet, Op 130. The ethereal diatonic opening to the work suggests the strong influence of neoclassical Stravinsky, as distinctively modified by the music of Copland, by whom Britten was befriended at the time of composition.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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