Benjamin Britten: Phantasy Quartet

At seventeen, British composer Benjamin Britten won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. Despite his hatred for Gresham’s School, which he had previously been attending, he found himself reluctant to leave when the time came: “I am terribly sorry to leave such boys as these,” he wrote. “I didn’t think I should be so sorry to leave.”

Although trading in public-school bullying and corporal punishment for a comprehensive musical education perhaps ought to have left him wildly grateful, he soon adjusted to his circumstances and found aspects to object to. His RCM classmates were “amateurish and folksy,” and his teachers valued his technical brilliance too little, to the point of mistrusting it. Fortunately, at the RCM Britten had access to not just the academic opportunities of the school but also the wider cultural life of London. He took advantage of the many opportunities to attend concerts, and became known by many of the important performers working in the city.

One such performer was oboist Léon Goossens. Goossens was in many ways Britten’s opposite; whereas Britten had received a comprehensive education and made his way into music through force of will, Goossens had been born into a family of musicians, and even had his instrument picked out for him by his father. By the time the young Britten decided to dedicate a piece of chamber music to him, Goossens was considered one of the best oboists in the world: an Italian oboist, upon hearing him play in the Covent Garden Orchestra, said “I am willing to break my instrument over my knee after listening to such perfection.” He was also an innovator, whose legacy can be heard in every North American woodwind performance to this day: he developed the practice of using vibrato on the oboe, despite the strenuous objections of the older generation of players who insisted that vibrato had no place in woodwind playing at all.

Britten’s Phantasy Quartet is one of the many twentieth-century oboe works dedicated to Goossens, who nearly single-handedly elevated the status of the oboe to solo instrument, both with his propensity to inspire composers to write for him, and his habit of commissioning them for new works on the off-chance that they were not immediately forthcoming. “There is no musician of our time whose genius has had so radical an effect upon the status and fortunes of his chosen instrument,” wrote the music critic of the London Observer. Although the Phantasy Quartet was an early effort for Britten– his Op. 2, written in his second year of the study at the RCM– Goossens loved the carefully crafted, perfectly symmetrical 15-minute fantasy. He chose to premiere it on a BBC broadcast, and then brought it to Florence to play at the annual festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music; where Britten received the first international acclaim of his blossoming career.