Britten and Brosa

For three decades Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto was an orphan of the repertoire. It emerged at a difficult time and at first its subtleties were not appreciated. It arose from Britten’s friendship with the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa (1894–1979) – they were introduced by Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge – and in 1936 Brosa joined Britten in the first complete performance of the Suite for violin and piano op.6 for the BBC. The suite was also chosen for the 1936 International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) festival held in Barcelona and the duo gave the first concert performance there in April.

At the same festival Britten heard the premiere of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, which profoundly affected him, as did the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that July. These impressions coalesced with the desire to write something for Brosa, and in November 1938 he began composing the Violin Concerto. Early in 1939 he set sail for Canada, where the work was completed.

Its slow-fast-slow outline and central scherzo are influenced by Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. Britten even pays homage to Beethoven’s concerto, as the timpani are heard first. He reverses the usual scheme in the sonata-form opening movement: the first theme is dreamily slow, the second fast, almost jazzy. Gradually the slower music asserts itself, the faster theme is withheld from the recapitulation and the movement ends quietly. The Vivace is very virtuosic, especially the high-lying solo passages in its central section. A substantial cadenza leads into Britten’s first passacaglia, a form of which he was a master; the variations rise to a grand climax but the work ends with the solo violin keening against a light accompaniment.

Brosa gave the premiere in New York on 28 March 1940, with the Philharmonic-Symphony under John Barbirolli. Britten was present and it was well received, but the London premiere by Thomas Matthews on 6 April 1941, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Basil Cameron, was rather frowned on – people took it badly that Britten was abroad while a war was raging. Performances were sporadic on both sides of the Atlantic and although Barbirolli made an excellent recording in 1949 with the German-Dutch violinist Theo Olof, it was shelved because Britten planned changes. In the 1950s he thoroughly revised the score, mainly removing Brosa’s editorial changes to the solo part, but hardly anyone cared.

Then the Russian violinist Mark Lubotsky recorded the concerto in Moscow and sent a disc to Britten, who promptly invited Lubotsky to re-record it with him at Snape Maltings.

  • Benjamin Britten, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Antonio Brosa, The Tully Potter Collection

Coupled with Sviatoslav Richter’s rendition of the equally problematic Piano Concerto, that 1970 performance aroused enthusiasm in Western critics and record buyers, marking a miraculous rebirth for the Violin Concerto. It has now taken its rightful place in the repertoire.

Tully Potter