Discovered: Britten's earliest 'masterpiece'

By James Morrison,Arts,Media Correspondent
Thursday 12 December 2013 03:21
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The complete manuscript for a hitherto unknown Benjamin Britten chamber piece written by the composer at the age of 16 has been discovered at the house where he died.

The complete manuscript for a hitherto unknown Benjamin Britten chamber piece written by the composer at the age of 16 has been discovered at the house where he died.

Two Pieces for Violin, Viola and Piano, a 15-minute work described by experts as a "masterpiece", was found by Britten's former assistant as he leafed through a stack of unsorted papers while researching a new biography of the late composer. It will be performed for the first time in London this summer.

Long regarded as one of England's foremost musical prodigies, Britten is known to have been writing sophisticated pieces from as early as the age of nine. However, what marks the new discovery out from his other early works is its completeness, and the playful melding of styles that was later to become one of his trademarks. In particular, it exhibits early signs of his fascination with the Viennese School, and the techniques he would later use to great effect to evoke the beauty of the natural landscape and the movement of water.

The manuscript for the "forgotten" chamber piece was uncovered by composer David Matthews, Britten's former assistant and now his biographer, in an archive at the Red House in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where the composer lived. The work is to be premiered by Matthews and two other musicians at an open-air concert at St John's, Smith Square, in Westminster, on 10 July, to be broadcast on Radio 3. It will coincide with the launch of Matthews's new biography of Britten, Life and Times.

David Matthews was abroad this weekendand unavailable for comment, but another member of the trio that will perform the work, violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, who is also a research fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, said of the piece: "What is so extraordinary about it is that it isn't just a fragmentary piece of juvenilia. It is a complete, mature chamber piece.

"We know that Britten was already writing pieces when he was still in single figures, and he wrote a simple symphony for chamber orchestra based on material composed when he was 10 or 11, but here you can see the roots of some of his familiar gambits."

Sheppard Skaerved, in discussing the music, points to another interesting feature which is Britten's notable talent for evoking the sea, most notably in the sea interludes in Peter Grimes, but already in evidence in this find.

"One example is the fact that Britten was renowned for being able to evoke the idea of water. He grew up in East Anglia and always had a love of the sea – it's something that comes out in much of his work – and this piece already shows the beginnings of the techniques he used to describe it."

Sheppard Skaerved added: "Another thing that strikes you about this piece is that Britten was working with Germanic structures, but even if you 'took away all the notes' it would still be exciting."

News of the extraordinary find was welcomed by Ralph Woodward, a freelance composer and conductor and a leading authority on Britten. "It is fascinating that new pieces keep turning up," he said. "It is an ongoing project to work out what pieces are complete and what are just sketches.

"Britten's juvenilia pieces are very good. Even compositions from when he was only 14 stand up when played today."

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