Hyperion Records

String Quartet No 3, Op 94
October to November 1975; written for the Amadeus Quartet who gave the first performance at Snape Maltings on 19 December 1976

'Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3' (CDA68004)
Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3
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Movement 1: Duets: With moderate movement
Movement 2: Ostinato: Very fast
Movement 3: Solo: Very calm
Movement 4: Burlesque: Fast, con fuoco
Movement 5: Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima): Slow

String Quartet No 3, Op 94
When Britten was recovering from his 1973 heart operation, he complained that he experienced extreme discomfort in stretching up to reach the upper staves of a full orchestral manuscript. Hans Keller, for whom Britten had many years earlier promised to compose another string quartet, quipped that perhaps now was the right time to be thinking about returning to chamber music. Britten took up the suggestion, embarking wholeheartedly on his String Quartet No 3 in October 1975 and completing the composition draft in Venice the same November. Work on the score proved to be exceptionally tiring, and Britten employed the young composer Colin Matthews as an amanuensis and personal assistant: Matthews would play through Britten’s sketches on the piano, with the composer himself adding the ground bass in the final passacaglia movement. The work was intended for the Amadeus Quartet, who gave Britten a private hearing of it in Aldeburgh on 28 September 1976, but by this point the composer’s health had deteriorated so seriously that he was unable to listen for more than twenty minutes at a stretch, and needed to take frequent rests. Britten did not live to hear a public performance of his last quartet: it was premiered by the Amadeus at Snape Maltings on 19 December, just over a fortnight after his death.

Because the work comprises five fairly short movements, some commentators have regarded the Third Quartet more as a suite rather than as a cogently constructed musical argument. Indeed, Britten’s working title for the piece was ‘Divertimento’, which clearly suggests an initially lightweight conception, and it is plausible to argue that the work constitutes a significant departure from the principles of sonata form which had, however heavily disguised, dominated all his earlier instrumental music. The brunt of the intellectual substance is borne by the two outer movements, which form a frame to the three intermezzo-like central movements (two scherzos flanking a slow movement). The overall plan of the quartet is thus a simple arch pattern, again recalling the seminal influence of Bartók. Keller declared:

The height of Britten’s own symphonic thought is reached, without question, in his Third String Quartet which, composed thirty years after his second, consummates what the earlier … work had foreshadowed, not only in terms of human drama made purely musical, but also in venturing, whole mindedly, that decisive step beyond—into the Mozartian realm of the instrumental purification of opera.

Britten’s Third Quartet is specifically related to his last opera, Death in Venice (composed in 1970–73), several quotations from which appear in the fifth movement: the subtitle ‘La Serenissima’ refers to Venice, the city in which the movement was composed. In the course of the Recitative, Britten includes the barcarolle used to depict the motions of gondolas in the opera in addition to material relating to the unrequited love of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach for the beautiful Polish boy Tadzio, and the haunting Passacaglia is set firmly in the key of E major—the tonality used in the opera to characterize Aschenbach himself. It seems likely, however, that the quartet’s programmatic finale was intended not as a further exploration of the operatic character and his predicament, but as a poignant envoi to Pears, who had created the role on the stage and who had been Britten’s partner and creative muse for the best part of four decades. Pears described the quartet in a letter written a few days after its posthumous premiere as being ‘of a profound beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious—overwhelming’.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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