String Quartet No. 2 in C major, Op. 36
While still basking in the triumph of his second opera, Peter Grimes, which premiered on June 8, 1945 at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, Britten set to work on several compositions of varying nature: a set of orchestral variations, a song cycle, his first chamber opera (The Rape of Lucretia), and his String Quartet No. 2. All of these works had a single strong link: the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer Britten revered above all others - Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
The Quartet No. 2, first performed on the precise date of the Purcell anniversary - November 21, 1945 - was actually Britten's third work in the form. The first, a student piece written at age 17, he suppressed for decades, finally publishing it in 1975. The Quartet listed as No. 1, Op. 25, was written while the composer was in America and premiered in Los Angeles in 1941. A fourth Quartet came in 1976.
Four string quartets and an eventual total of 16 operas are the tip of the iceberg for a composer whose immense catalog illustrates an indefatigable industry. That the quality of so many of his works reached the pinnacle of greatness places Britten in a rarefied position in 20th-century music. During his lifetime, he was regarded as one of the truly great creative giants, a musical artist admired, respected, and much honored in and out of his native England. In fact, because of his distinction as a composer, pianist, and conductor, he was thought by many to have been one of the premier musicians of the 20th century. His achievements were officially recognized in 1976, when he was elevated to the peerage of Great Britain by Queen Elizabeth II and made a Lord, the first composer to be so honored.
In spite of his being a Britisher through and through, he didn't go the folk route of Vaughan Williams. Still, in the Second Quartet he proclaimed his Englishness by paying homage to Purcell in a final movement he gave the Purcellian title of 'Chacony.' Basing his chaconne's continuous variations on a noble theme given in unison, Britten devised 21 variations in three groups of six and a final group of three. At the end of each group of six there is a cadenza for, in turn, cello, viola, and violin. The musical grandeur of this movement, and its length - it is longer than the first two movements combined - testify to Britten's intention to glorify Purcell.
Lest one might think that the final movement overwhelms the Quartet, it should be indicated that the first movement makes a quite powerful statement and the scherzo second movement evokes a mood that is remarkable for its veiled intensity.
- Orrin Howard annotated programs for over 20 years while serving as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute to the program book.