The Temporal Variations were written partially in response to a plea by the writer Montagu Slater. Slater, who was a left-wing dramatist, poet and editor, had originally asked Britten to write a ‘War Requiem.’ Rather naively, Slater had imagined that if the twenty year Britten had written this work somehow the slide to war would have been halted! Of course, the War Requiem did not appear until some 28 years later, but in lieu the Temporal Variations were completed on 12th December 1936.
Unusually, they were given their premiere at the Wigmore Hall only three days later! I suppose I had always imagined that the soloist then would have been Léon Goossens, however it was in fact Natalie Caine with Adolph Hollis on the piano. They must have been quick learners!
I understand the reception of the work was somewhat luke-warm – with the critics not really understanding the significance of what they heard. Apparently, The Times euphemistically cited it as being ‘clever’ which probably could be interpreted as worthless. The work was immediately withdrawn by the composer for ‘reworking’ and was not played again until after his death.
Some critics and musicologists have declared that this work is ‘merely’ a set of variations –with no reference to current events or aspirations. Others have considered it a mine of allusions and cross references to contemporary and not so contemporary composers.
However let us consider when it was composed. It was at a time when the Spanish Civil War was getting under way and when Britten had just returned from a successful trip to the ISCM Festival in Barcelona where his Theme & Variations for Violin & Piano had been performed - so it was almost inevitable that there would be a subtext. In this case it was the inexorable slide to total war.
Furthermore Britten had begun to write music for the GPO Film Unit and this led to some use of instrumental colour in the Variations for extra musical effect (marching, sirens & bomb blasts)
The original theme begins somewhat obliquely before prefiguring some of the imagery that is considered in the variations.
The seven variations that follow are effectively ‘wartime vignettes.’ These cover such diverse images as marching, military manoeuvres (Exercises), an Anglican Church service, a waltz for ‘mutilaté,’ a bizarre ‘polka’ which reminded me of the Berlin portrayed by Christopher Isherwood. However the work comes to an end with a ‘resolution’ which offers an optimistic finish to a disturbing work.
Certainly the energy and intensity of this piece is an eloquent testimony to the prevailing pacifist thinking that pervaded much of the intellectual establishment in the pre-war years. Perhaps it was just a pity that it took some time to realise that dictators could not be defeated by chamber music or requiems, but typically needed bravery and force of arms.
Interestingly, Montagu Slater, the works dedicatee was to write the libretto for what many regard as Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes. And another masterpiece was eventually performed in 1961 at Coventry Cathedral – The War Requiem. So, Slater was one way or another to play a hugely significant role in Britten’s musical achievement – even if the Temporal Variations were not quite what he originally had in mind.
An excellent performance of this work can be heard on Oboe Classics CC2008 with Emily Pailthorpe, oboe & Julian Milford, piano