With a complex mix of motivations – personal, artistic, social, and political – Benjamin Britten left England in April 1939 for North America, where he lived for the next three years in places ranging from the Catskills (visiting Aaron Copland) to Escondido in Southern California (staying with the duo pianists Rae Robertson and Ethel Bartlett). This was a highly productive period for the composer, including works such as Young Apollo, Les illuminations, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Violin Concerto, and the String Quartet No. 1.
Lost among them was An Occasional Overture written for Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra in October 1941. The piece was not performed and Britten forgot all about it. The manuscript eventually found its way to the New York Public Library, where a cataloguer brought it to Britten’s attention in 1972. Since Britten had composed another Occasional Overture in 1946, this one was renamed An American Overture for publication, although it was not premiered until after the composer’s death.
The episodic piece offers considerable sonic support for its very pragmatic title, however, juxtaposing utterly characteristic Britten harmonies and scoring with strong suggestions of Copland and even jaunty hints of jazz. There is anxiety and stress in the moody introduction and spiky central dance episode, but Britten builds an open circling theme over an implacable slow march rhythm to a strong, unconflicted climax.
– John Henken