Another spring symphony – Benjamin Britten

by Ben Hogwood

In the last week Arcana have explored three very different symphonies with a springtime theme or feel. Now here is a fourth, a very different beast, from the pen of Benjamin Britten.

A number of years back I wrote about this piece for my Good Morning Britten blog, marking the composer’s centenary. There is a lot of scholarly debate as to whether this really is a proper symphony, but as Michael Kennedy points out in his booklet note for Britten’s own recording on Decca, it follows in the tradition of choral symphonies from Vaughan Williams and Holst, while taking more influence from the Mahler symphonies in which voices were used.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and began with a rather different concept. When Britten wrote to the conductor, he said, ‘I am planning it for chorus and soloists, as I think you wanted; but it is a real symphony (the emphasis is on the orchestra) and consequently I am using Latin words’.

Things changed, as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer details. ‘Both Eric Crozier and Elizabeth Sweeting believe that the Spring Symphony owes its existence to a particular Suffolk landscape, ‘somewhere between Snape and Ufford’, writes Crozier. According to Sweeting, Britten visited this spot on a picnic with her, his housekeeper and Pears. It was ‘a glorious spring day, one of those that seem to be out of time; and she believes that this experience crystallized his love of the Suffolk countryside.’

The work actually enjoyed its first performance in the Netherlands, where, with Koussevitsky’s blessing, Eduard van Beinum conducted the first performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 14 July 1949. A little Latin remained, Britten including the ancient song Sumer is icumen in in the work’s climactic final pages.

Britten says this is ‘a symphony not only dealing with the Spring itself, but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the reawakening of the earth and life which that means’. Carpenter maintains that ‘sweetness is the work’s predominant character – most of the poems are in the pastoral tradition – and it is much to Britten’s credit that the music never becomes cloying. This is largely due to the orchestration. Coming to it from the exigencies of the English Opera Group chamber ensemble, Britten treats the full-size symphony orchestra of the Spring Symphony (triple woodwind, four percussionists and two harps) as a palette from which he selects only a few colours at a time, with stunning results.’

Britten recorded the work first, though the version below is a live concert given by Leonard Bernstein in 1963. Once the ear becomes used to the sound it is easy to appreciate the intensity of the performance from singers and orchestra alike:

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