1. Boisterous Bourrée (Allegro ritmico)
2. Playful Pizzicato (Presto possible pizzicato sempre)
3. Sentimental Sarabande (Poco lento e pesante)
4. Frolicsome Finale (Prestissimo con fuoco)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote his Simple Symphony in 1934 when he was only twenty years old. Audiences more accustomed to his later, large-scale works with their sophisticated structures and sometimes darker moods will find his Simple Symphony a clever and not-so-simple delight.

Britten began piano lessons at the age of five and almost immediately became a prolific composer. This work, written for string orchestra, was first performed in Norwich in 1934 by an amateur orchestra conducted by Britten himself. The symphony’s four movements stem from eight separate themes he had composed for piano in his childhood, with two of his favourites for each movement. The earlier suites and sonatas for piano together with dances and songs were combined into the new work by the young composer’s enthusiasm and seemingly effortless technique.

As well as being alliterative, the names of each movement are descriptive. The Simple Symphony opens with ‘Boisterous Bourrée’ (a French dance). After an arresting start, the strings seem to play a game of tag, chasing one another up an imaginary staircase. Teasingly, they never quite get to the top, but combine more broadly for several bars before agitating in a fast reprise of the opening to the end.

Radio 4 listeners to ‘Playful Pizzicato’, the second movement, will recognise a particular seven-note sequence as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the signature tune of that everyday story of country folk, The Archers. The term ‘pizzicato’ instructs players to pluck strings rather than bow them, producing a very different sound. 

‘Sentimental Sarabande’ is another movement based on dance, this time from Latin America and Spain. The mood is romantic and slow, with rich, sweeping melodies and a wistfulness that makes it very different from the more extrovert messages of the other movements.

The work concludes with ‘Frolicsome Finale’:  the title says it all. After a powerful entry with staccato dancing strings, the double bass introduces fragments of new melodies lightly played by the others to round off the Simple Symphony. The young composer’s skill in combining disparate earlier pieces into a whole shines through this witty and enchanting work.

Composer:  Britten Title of Musical Work:  Simple Symphony (Op.4)

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

RAF No 11 Squadron Typhoon
(11 June 2018)