Benjamin Britten: Phantasy for oboe, violin, viola, and cello

Luis de Milán in the mid 16th century defined the fantasia as an instrumental composition whose design evolves “solely from the fantasy and skill of the author who created it”. A celebrated form, Bach composed some 15 fantasias, and Beethoven used one as a predecessor to the 9th Symphony, moving from solo piano through chamber-music like ensembles to full orchestra and chorus. Through the centuries, the fantasia has remained a genre where the freedom of the composer is its hallmark, and has elements that range from the dream-like to allusions to more formal structures.

Benjamin Britten has done no less in his Phantasy, combining a misty, ethereal atmosphere with a sturdy if asymmetrical rhythmical base. Christopher Field notes that the work – and the old English spelling of fantasia – ­belongs to the tradition of Wilson Cobbett and the Worshipful Company of Musicians, who at the start of the 20th Century established competitions to encourage compositions of the form. Britten composed the work in 1932 at the tender age of nineteen. Howard Posner notes that the work was broadcast on the BBC the following year, earning praise in the London Times over the work of John Ireland ­– who happened to be Britten’s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music.

Britten’s Phantasy begins with a completely empty bar; this could very well be a moment of pondering for the players, or simply allowing the cello to emerge, literally, from nothingness. The cello then appears on a third beat, then a second beat, then on an upbeat – an off-kilter rhythmic mystery, soon accentuated by both left and right hand pizzicato in the viola, before the violin marshals its instrumental relations, and the work finally seems to gather itself together. March-like, the strings herald the entrance of the oboe, which ­– naturally – brings a completely unrelated theme, turning the work to a remarkable pool of timbral colours.

And so the work progresses, from an Allegro guisto with conversational-like features that quickly collide into canonic moments, eventually dissolving into calmer tempos, where the oboe departs, leaving the strings to command a central section. The listener soon hears how gradual shifts through a spectrum of tempos become the signature feature of the work, from Animato to Con fuoco to Molto più lento; from here to there, and back again, in its musical adventure.

After a definitive burst of energy, the work returns to familiar territory as the march-like figure returns. In its conclusion, the cello remains, mirror-imaging its prophetic introduction as the Phantasy, like a brilliant musical peacock, gently folds its rainbow feathers, and returns to slumber.


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