Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2020 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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Cello Suite No. 3, Op. 87 [1971]

BENJAMIN BRITTEN
Born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, England
Died December 4, 1976 in Aldeburgh, England

The enduring friendship between Benjamin Britten and Mstislav Rostropovich began in 1960, when the Russian cellist came to London to perform the British premiere of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, with the composer in attendance. When Shostakovich introduced Britten and Rostropovich after the concert, the adventurous cellist immediately asked for a new piece (apparently this was his routine with all composers), and Britten soon obliged with the Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Rostropovich performed that new sonata at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival in 1961, establishing a routine that brought the Russian star back to perform new suites for solo cello in 1965, 1968 and 1974. It didn’t even matter that they could not speak each others’ native languages, since they both knew just enough German to conduct their friendship in a bastardized idiom they dubbed “Aldeburgh Deutsch.”

Britten composed the Cello Suite No. 3 in 1971, incorporating four Russian tunes as a tribute to his friend. Three of the melodies came from a collection of folksong arrangements made by Tchaikovsky, while the fourth quotes the Kontakion, a hymn for the dead from Russian Orthodox liturgy. The short, linked movements function as ephemeral variations, hinting at the themes but not stating them outright until the final Passacaglia.