Britten’s Suite for Cello, Op. 72

Backstage at the Royal Festival Hall, Rostropovich had just given the London première of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Britten, personally invited into the green room by Shostakovich, soon committed himself to writing a cello sonata which he duly completed and then recorded with Rostropovich in 1961. This was the beginning of one of the most fruitful composer-performer relationships of the twentieth century. Within a few years, Britten completed his Cello Symphony, which remains a giant of the cello concerto repertoire. The three solo suites were written over the next ten years and are widely considered to be the greatest addition to the solo repertoire since J.S. Bach’s six suites.

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich

In 1964 Britten presented Rostropovich with the Suite for Cello op. 72 as a Christmas present, inspired by a performance of Bach’s cello suites. This large work is in six diverse movements, split into pairs by three ‘canto’ movements which function like the Promenades from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition– always recognisable but appearing in new guises with the development of the suite. They help to guide the listener through this complex piece – Britten was clearly aware of the challenges of understanding solo cello music in this style. Despite having never played the cello, Britten achieves superbly idiomatic writing as he stretches the instrument to the limits of possibility.

Canto Primo

The piece opens with the optimistic Canto Primo, full of rhetorical gesture and dramatic harmonic tension-and-release. Britten thickens the texture by using double-stops throughout, often writing out three-note spread chords. It fades away to a glimmering D major and out of the brief silence, the first of our six movements emerges: Fuga.

The writing of fugues found a new vogue in the twentieth century, most notably with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87. Both these composers were directly inspired by Bach’s monumental benchmark: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. None of Bach’s solo cello suites include fugal movements, because they are structured traditionally as dance suites, but he was not averse to writing fugues for other string instruments: each of his solo violin sonatas begins with a Prelude and Fugue pairing. Britten includes fugal movements in all three of his solo cello suites, recognising the advancement of cello technique that took off during the twentieth century, and rises impeccably to the challenge of creating a fugue for an instrument most suited to the realisation of one line. The cellist’s task is to bring out the different voices by variation of the tone quality and careful phrasing. The subject is exposed and developed, growing to an explosion which rapidly falls away into glassy harmonics, a ghost of its former self. Britten follows this movement with the Lamento, a simple song which blends straight into the Canto Secondo: Britten’s second use of his ‘Canto’ theme is this time suffused with melancholy.

The fiery Serenata springs out of the ashes and is played entirely by plucking the string with both hands. It has an unmistakably Spanish character and Britten uses the cello like a guitar with cross-rhythms rooted in flamenco traditions. Like its fellows, this movement outlines a clear journey, culminating in a breathless ascent to a solitary top A, with the piercing feeling of thin air and bright clarity only experienced at extreme altitude.

Britten’s next movement is another dance – the Marcia begins with the bugle calls and drums of an approaching military band, achieved by tapping the wood of the bow on the string – col legno. The music gets closer and closer until a powerful singing outburst obliterates the martial precision of the opening. The marching band is soon heard again, already retreating palely into the distance, defeated. The ensuing Canto Terzo marks a new milestone of the suite, building to a passionate climax with clashing discords and then fades away, appeased, to a deserted open D string.


This note becomes the drone for the ensuing Bordonean eclectic movement paying homage both to the Baroque style of monodic recitative over a droning bass and Balinese tuning and texture. Britten toured Japan and Indonesia in 1955-6 and integrated material borrowed from Japanese, Indian and Balinese music with his own style in subsequent works. The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), for example, is scattered with gamelan techniques from Bali.

Finally the devilish Moto Perpetuo e Canto Quarto explodes out of this meditative stasis, a flurry of chromaticism, which surges up and down, spinning across the range of the instrument. Suddenly, the Canto Quarto bursts through, and its dazzling sunlight battles to and fro with the determined flood of notes. As we approach the end, the two themes are blurred and then united for the final gallop to the finish.

Benjamin Britten

Britten composed his Suite for Cello with a performance of Bach’s six suites imprinted on his mind. Despite the greatness of this music, the most powerful aspect of his inspiration must have been Rostropovich’s phenomenal virtuosity and vitality of expression, blessing these pieces with a theatricality and communicative force unsurpassed in music for solo cello.

Recommended recordings:

Mstistlav Rostropovich ‘Britten Cello Suites 1 & 2’

Alexander Baillie ‘Britten Cello Sonata, Suite No. 1

© Joy Lisney 2012