Length: 16 minutes
In some ways, Benjamin Britten's childhood was almost a model for British middle-class country boys, with his keen interest in cricket and steady progress through the local school. But musical precocity was another side of his persona, and by age 14 he had amassed a catalog of 100 opus numbers, mostly songs and solo piano pieces.
In 1934, during his last year at the Royal College of Music, Britten raided that stock of early music for the themes of his Simple Symphony. "This 'Simple Symphony' is entirely based on material from works which the composer wrote between the ages of nine and twelve," he noted in the published score. "Although the development of these themes is in many places quite new, there are large stretches of the work which are taken bodily from the early pieces - save for the re-scoring for strings."
In form, the symphony's four movements approximate classical shapes and key relationships, though in miniature - sonata form movements first and last, framing a scherzo and a slow movement. The titles - "Boisterous Bourrée," "Playful Pizzicato," "Sentimental Saraband," and "Frolicsome Finale" - indicate both humor and a certain neo-classical inclination (bourrées and sarabandes are dances common in baroque suites).
The first movement dances vigorously. Though its thematic disposition and harmonic structure sustain the dialectics of classical sonata form, the linear integrity and motivic interplay suggest neo-baroque contrapuntal textures.
The second movement is a delightful dazzler, plucked throughout and played as fast as possible. In form it is a classical scherzo with a clearly defined trio section, but in spirit it too is a baroque dance, a nimble jig that takes on stomping accents in the slower trio.
Almost as long as the other three movements combined, the Saraband sounds like a modal British folk song, done up in the Vaughan Williams style Britten later disdained. It contrasts a heavily swelling theme with a tender, soft intimation of the baroque dance rhythm. Both are treated to contrapuntal echoes, and combined at the end in a haunting, muted coda.
"Frolicsome" the finale may be, but with the disciplined athleticism of a professional sports team. Harmony and meter are subjected to sudden jolts throughout, in a movement of constantly varied textures and dynamics, brought to an emphatic close.
John Henken is the Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.