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Variations on a theme of Benjamin Britten

for String Orchestra

Composition Date: 2013/2016

Duration: 18'

Orchestration: Str (minimum players)



Commissioned and first performed by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields at Turner Sims, Southampton, on 9 May 2013, directed by Stephanie Gonley.

★ ★ ★ ★

"going beyond homage, she stamped her personality with beguiling intricacies of texture and virtuosity"

Rian Evans, The Guardian, May 2013

Programme Note:

Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten (2013)

Dedicated to Sir Neville Marriner

Introduction and Theme








Passacaglia: Finale

When I was eight, my mother took me to a dress rehearsal of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells, where she was playing in the orchestra. The experience made a deep impression on me; particularly bumping into Peter Pears, in full costume, when I was looking for my mother backstage.

This first encounter with Britten led me to the Sea Interludes to look for a suitable theme for this new piece.

The theme I’ve chosen comes from the second interlude, ‘Sunday Morning’. I am also using other thematic and decorative material from this interlude.

My mother and I both played the Frank Bridge Variations with the Academy of St Martins, and I was delighted to be asked to write a companion piece for the centenary celebrations. I immediately thought of the very special democracy of the Academy – the fact that every player is regarded as a soloist. The work is dedicated to Sir Neville Marriner, and celebrates the Academy, exploring its collective virtuosity, and the richness and fullness of its sound. There are many solo and chamber passages, and the last players of each section are also featured (a favourite effect of Neville’s!).

Britten’s variations explore various dance forms, and I have loosely echoed this idea. After an introductory fanfare and initial statement of the theme, on violas, the first variation takes the form of a ‘barcarole’ – the traditional Venetian boat song – a symbolic spanning of Britten’s operatic output from Peter Grimes to his last opera, almost 30 years later: Death in Venice.

The Quadrille is a quirky dance, pitting the upper against the lower strings. Later, a ‘Requiem’ is for those lost in war – an acknowledgement of Britten’s strongly held pacifist beliefs – and my own.

‘Paean’ is a celebratory nod to the opening fanfare of ‘Les Illuminations’, perhaps my favourite Britten work, with its juxtaposition of major triads in unrelated keys.

The piece is brought to a close through an extended passacaglia, where a theme derived from Britten’s is played eight times, building to a joyful coda.

There are of course clear references to Britten, and in some ways this piece is an ‘homage’. But, as Britten did in his variations, I have also referenced other composers, so that the end result is woven from many different elements, held together by Britten’s simple and beautiful theme.they also looking for a guest conductor

Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten was commissioned by The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and first performed by them at Turner Sims, Southampton, on 9th May, 2013, directed by Stephanie Gonley.

Sally Beamish 2013


Available Recordings:

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