Britten composed, or at least began, well over 700 pieces as a child – including this week’s piece: an ambitious tone poem entitled Chaos and Cosmos. It is scored for a huge orchestra comprising triple woodwind, full brass and ‘big drum’, and was composed over a fortnight in 1927 when Britten was still only thirteen years old. The piece is in two sections: ‘Chaos’ has a fiery, turbulent beginning culminating quickly in a foreboding downward figure; while ‘Cosmos’ is characterised by a long-breathed melody, which Britten repeats many times over various sections of the orchestra. The tone poem was one of many orchestral works he composed in this period, mainly in the years before he began lessons with Frank Bridge, and he presented this particular work to his parents on their 26th wedding anniversary which fell on 5 September 1927. (In the previous year he had offered them Suite Fantastique for orchestra and piano; and in 1928 the orchestral songs Quatre chansons françaises.)
Britten would not have had a chance to hear these early, large-scale works, but a number of substantial sections were recorded in 2012 by the orchestra at Birmingham Conservatoire under the baton of Lionel Friend. It was fascinating to hear the young Britten’s attempts at composing on a big scale, for while he had not at this stage mastered structure over a lengthy piece, his imagination and fluency seemed as boundless in his teens as it remained throughout his life.