Britten's String Quartet No.3 40 years ago today
We mark the 40th anniversary of the rehearsal of the String Quartet that took place at the Library at The Red House, Aldeburgh
Britten completed his String Quartet No. 3, Op 94, in December 1975. Colin Matthews states that he and his brother David (whom Colin had succeeded as one of the composer’s assistants) worked closely with Britten on the piece: ‘David and I played through the Third Quartet in the Library. All the sessions that I had with Britten on the Quartet and on Phaedra [a dramatic cantata for mezzo soprano and small orchestra, premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival 16 June 1976] also used the Library piano, never the drawing room one’—the Composition Studio piano had been moved by then to The Red House drawing room. The first performance of the five movement work was to be given by Britten’s friends the Amadeus String Quartet later in December. Norbert Brainin wrote enthusiastically to Britten in January and March of 1976 to compliment him on his ‘new Serenissima’ (the name given to part of the final movement) and the ‘highly original and personal’ piece. A letter of 25 August indicates how essential a meeting with the composer would be to finalizing such matters as the phrasing and rhythm of the work.
Rehearsing at Snape on the day of the premiere. Image by Nigel Luckhurst
My dearest Ben,
Thanks so much for agreeing to see us on Sept. 28th to listen to your finished quartet No. 3 (such as it will be by that time).
We’re immensely looking forward to seeing you again and having your guidance for the study of this marvelous piece of yours. We are all thrilled with it and are eager to be able to play it properly. There is some progress for instance: I can play nearly all the difficult bits by now, meaning the notes of course, but don’t know exactly how to shape them as yet.
Yours with all my love,
Not wishing to tax Britten’s failing health another assistant, Rosamund Strode, arranged for the Amadeus Quartet to rehearse in the Library during the early evening of the 28 ‘and again before lunch the next day’ of the 29 September (Letter from R. Strode to N. Brainin, 17 August 1976). These rehearsals took place in the far end of the room near the terrace doors that lead out to the pond. In addition to Britten, his private nurse Rita Thomson and close friend and Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell, were also in attendance. Cellist and last surviving member of the Amadeus Quartet Martin Lovett comments on how useful the rehearsal proved to be: Britten’s guidance on ‘accents in funny places and his change of the speed to con moto in the final movement’. ‘There was an exhilarating yet sombre atmosphere in the Library’, playing a new work yet realizing the extreme delicacy of the composer’s health. At the conclusion of the rehearsal Britten turned to Donald Mitchell (to whom Lovett referred as ‘the Mahler Man’) and simply stated: ‘It works’.
The quartet was given its first performance Snape at the Maltings Concert Hall fifteen days after the composer’s death (on the 19 December 1976). Lovett described this performance as a ‘voice from the grave’, indicating that the ease with which it was played was ‘due in no small part to the tutelage the Amadeus had received from Ben three months earlier’.