Version for string orchestra first performed on 6 June 2021 at Snape Maltings, Snape by the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Wilson.
See also: Version for chamber orchestra
Britten was so remarkably prolific as a young composer that many of the works from his teens were put aside to await revision or completion as he rushed on to the next piece. This was particularly the case around the time of his Op.1 Sinfonietta, composed in the summer of 1932 when he was 18 and in his second year as a student at the Royal College of Music. The Sinfonietta was written (in less than three weeks) very soon after Britten had completed the first draft of the Double Concerto; after finishing the Sinfonietta he went back to revise the Concerto’s second movement. He started work on his Op.2 Phantasy for oboe and string trio a few weeks later.
Although the Concerto uses the same three-movement pattern as the Sinfonietta, it is more ambitious in scale. The sketch is, unusually for Britten, complete in every detail, and it is puzzling that he never made a full score of the work after finishing its composition. He also seems to have made no effort to get it performed. It is not clear if he had particular performers in mind (he was, of course, a viola player, but it is unlikely that he intended the part for himself). He showed the draft to his composition teacher at the college, John Ireland, who – as Britten recorded in his diary – was ‘pretty pleased with it’; but it is quite likely that his experience in rehearsing the Sinfonietta with a student orchestra in the autumn of 1932 (‘I have never heard such an appalling row!’, reads another diary entry) discouraged him from going on to complete the Double Concerto in score. He was not to hear any of his orchestral works until the first performance of Our Hunting Fathers in 1936.
In the absence of Britten’s full score I prepared the work for performance in 1996, using the full orchestra that Britten clearly indicated in the sketch. It was first performed at the 50th Aldeburgh Festival in June 1997 by Katherine Hunka and Philip Dukes, with the Britten–Pears Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano. This version for string orchestra was requested by Thomas Zehetmair, who with his wife Ruth Killius has given many fine performances of the work. Nothing of substance is changed from the original, but of course the reduction of the full orchestra to strings implies a very different sound world, one that Britten was not long afterwards to use for his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.
Programme note by Colin Matthews