Benjamin Britten Composer
Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, for viola and string orchestra, Op.48aPerformances: 17
Musicology:In 1949, while Benjamin Britten was on tour in the United States, he met the outstanding viola virtuoso William Primrose, who agreed to come to the 1950 edition of Britten's own Aldeburgh Festival, which, after two successful editions in 1948 and 1949, was already established as one of England's major summer musical events. As the Festival approached, Britten composed this major set of variations on a theme by late Renaissance English composer John Dowland for Primrose, "to reward him for coming to the Festival." Primrose played it in the 1950 Festival in a recital in which Britten himself accompanied at the keyboard.
Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, for viola and string orchestra, Op.48aYear: 1976
Pr. Instrument: Viola
- Theme: Lento
- Variation 1: Allegretto, andante molto
- Variation 2: Animato
- Variation 3: Tranquillo
- Variation 4: Allegro con moto
- Variation 5: Largamente
- Variation 6: Appassionato
- Variation 7: Alla valse moderato
- Variation 8: Allegro marcia
- Variation 9: Lento
- Variation 10: L'istesso tempo
Dowland (1563 - 1626) was one of the great composers of lute songs. Although contemporary accounts show that socially he was engaging and positive in mood and outlook, his music is known for its sadness, particularly for sadness at rejection or inconstancy by a lovely lady. Perhaps joking at his own image, he punned on his name by writing "Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens" (Always Dowland, Always Sorrowful"). Britten's title for this composition reflects the general classical listening audience's image of Dowland by its title, which means "Tears."
Among musicians, however, Dowland has been particularly admired for his subtle command of harmony. It is this aspect of the work with which Britten primarily concerns himself in constructing this set of ten variations. The work begins to quote the song "If my complaints could passion move" in a mood-setting slow introduction, with Dowland's melody in the low part of the accompaniment.
However, Dowland's original theme breaks off at the end of its first part, as the harmonies of the song begin to generate Britten's variations. Fragments of the melody are also heard, though Britten's concern with the harmonies leads him recreate something like Dowland's sensitivity to harmonic progression and devices in twentieth-century terms.
The first five variations are marked Allegretto, andante molto; Animato; Tranquillo; Allegro con moto; and Largamente. Britten's variations throughout the piece tend to be concise: only the opening and closing sections of the composition and the Animato and Tranquillo movements are more than a minute long.
In the sixth variation, marked Appassionato, Britten quotes another well-known Dowland song, "Flow my Tears." Then he continues working with the opening strain of the main Dowland song, in variations marked Alla valse moderato; Allegro Marcia; and Lento. For the final variation, Britten remains in Lento tempo and, in an expansive ending, quotes the entire Dowland song from beginning to end, for the first time in this composition, with Dowland's original harmonies, although spaced differently for piano and viola.
In the last year of his life Britten, though seriously ill, kept a promise made to Cecil Aronowitz, the long-time violist of the English Chamber Orchestra and close friend, and wrote a version of Lachrymae with an outstanding arrangement for string orchestra accompaniment. In either version, Lachrymae is one of the outstanding viola compositions of Britten's century.
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