Benjamin Britten wrote his Sinfonietta in three weeks during the summer of 1932 when the composer was just 18 years old. He had not yet embarked on the various settings (of texts by Auden, Rimbaud, and Michelangelo, among others) that would make such a distinctive body of vocal works in preparation for his pinnacle of achievement in the opera Peter Grimes. But Op. 1, coming in between his second and third years at the Royal College of Music, before he had gotten through his "very difficult musical adolescence" and was able to get down to the "real work" of composing, shows the economy of craft that would come to distinguish both his vocal and instrumental works.
The Sinfonietta premiered in 1933 at the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts, a London concert series run by violinist Anne Macnaghten and conductor Iris Lemare. In addition to its historical noteworthiness as an early venue for performances of Britten, Elizabeth Lutyens, and others, the series was remarkable for its influence in giving a platform to women composers and performers in the 1930s. The success of the Sinfonietta in this concert series attracted the attention of the British Broadcasting Company, where conductor Edward Clark would lead the BBC Orchestra in another performance in June 1934.
The work’s first movement, marked "Poco presto ed agitato," opens with a dissonant melodic motive on A and B-flat, quickly moving through instrumental groups before blossoming into full orchestration of a brief contrapuntal development. Even with this very early work, Britten’s ability to treat his modal (rather than functionally tonal) subjects with great lyric tenderness is plain to hear: Already, he was making inroads into a long and fruitful relationship with European modernism. His thematic concision, indeed, demands reference to the chamber music of Arnold Schoenberg to explain its careful treatment of unrepeated phrases.
This is followed by a second slow movement, which falls back almost into a mode of diatonic lyricism, emblematic of his equally long-standing and influential engagement with the British compositional tradition. In one of his more harsh and unforgiving analyses, musicologist Peter Evans once wrote that with the Sinfonietta Britten "sought to fashion an instrumental language tenser than the self-indulgent tunefulness of that debilitated English chamber tradition." In any case, this second movement opens with Britten again working out an intensely distilled melody, quickly handed off among winds, the care taken with the instrumentation evident from the singular pizzicato note that punctuates the introduction of strings to the texture. Luminescent pentatonic figurations in divisi strings keep the melodic pace slow until brass and tremolo strings introduce dramatic and tumbling thirds.
The third "Tarantella" movement opens at a breakneck, foursquare pace, churning through developmental material at a startling rate. The movement seems to be interrupted halfway through by an ascending horn call that stops the machine just long enough for a plaintive bassoon solo to restate the second theme before reintroducing the whirling motion in even bolder colors in the brass and winds.
The orchestration performed here is an expansion of the 1933 version and was completed in 1936. Rather than the one-on-a-part arrangement for five winds and five strings, the revision is written for two horns, winds, and a small string orchestra.