Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonietta, which
became his official Opus 1, was written during the summer of 1932 when the he
was studying at the Royal College of Music. It was to be his first published
work. The same year also saw the Phantasy Quartet for oboe, op.2, and the
choral A Boy was Born, op.3.
The Sinfonietta was originally a chamber piece written for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet (or small string orchestra); it was later arranged by the composer for a small orchestra in 1936. The work was dedicated to Britten’s private teacher and friend, the composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941).
The influence of Arnold Schoenberg on the Sinfonietta has been noted by Erwin Stein and others. This is not apparent in the soundscape of the piece, but more in the tight internal construction and the use of motivic development. All three movements are thematically related. Other influences on the music are from Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky.
The ‘innocent ear’ may not immediately ascribe this work to Benjamin Britten, however there are a number of fingerprints that were to feature in his subsequent music, including his economy of style and inventive use of instrumental colour.
The first few bars of the typically bold opening movement (Poco presto ed agitato) contain all the musical material which Britten develops in the entire work. The pastoral variations (andante lento) seem to nod towards Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, although one wonders if this was deliberate. It is interesting that the composer has stated that he had to ‘struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seems to stand for.’ The mood of this movement does move away from the rustic towards something more intense as it progresses. The final Tarantella (presto vivace) is spirited and exploits a fine pizzicato fugato section that sums up much of the work’s thematic argument.
Critics have tended to deny the Sinfonietta any emotional warmth, but have usually recognised the craftsmanship of the work’s structure and instrumentation.
The Sinfonietta, op.1, was given its first performance at the Ballet Club (Mercury Theatre) London on 31st January 1933 played by the English Wind Players and the Macnaghten String Quartet conducted by Iris Lemare. The work was published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1935.
A great performance of the original version by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra has been posted to YouTube.