Like last week’s ‘Work of the Week’, Phaedra, this piece comes from Britten’s remarkable ‘late’ period: the years between his heart operation in 1973 and his death in 1976. Although exhausted by the after-effects of the surgery, and compromised by the stroke he suffered during it, he produced some of the most beautiful and personal music of his career. The Suite on English Folk Tunes – ‘Lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger’, the Australian composer who had recently died – is a sequence of five wonderfully characterised movements for chamber orchestra. The work ranges from boisterous folk-like fiddling to daring orchestral effects (vividly described by Rumon Gamba in the film) and the achingly beautiful final movement, with its mournful cor anglais solo.
The subtitle ‘A Time there Was’ is poignant. The whole piece looks back – to older folk melodies and traditions – but traces of earlier Britten works are also in the mix. Thrifty and pragmatic as always, Britten recycled the movement ‘Hankin Booby’, composed eight years earlier for the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall; the strange poem ‘The Bitter Withy’ had originally been intended for his fourth Canticle in 1962, but the work remained incomplete; while ‘A Time There Was’ itself refers to the final movement of Britten’s 1954 song cycle Winter Words.