Benjamin Britten concentrated mostly on composing works of operatic or symphonic proportion after the initial success of Peter Grimes in 1945. Thankfully for violists everywhere, he took a small respite from composing on the large scale to write his beautifully crafted Lachrymae in 1950 for the preeminent British violist, William Primrose. The overall construction of the piece is quasi-variation style, or as Eric Bromberger says, “‘metamorphoses’: the shape and harmonic structure of that opening phrase will evolve through different permutations across the fifteen-minute span of Lachrymae.” Britten uses the theme of an ancient John Dowland (1563-1626) song, If my complaints could passions move, as the central motive of his Lachrymae, which translates in Latin to “tears”. The overall mood of the Dowland song is relatively dark, and Britten’s reflections on this theme basically stay in character. He starts with a number of muted reflections that are hesitant and wandering in nature, and gradually unfolds the piece and reveals the Dowland theme through increasingly outward and rigorously composed reflections. The final reflection is frenzied in nature and takes the viola up to its most extreme upper register before calming back down and ending the whole Lachrymae with a peaceful direct quote from the medieval song, as if to allow the listener to accept the previous grim affairs. The following is the final verse of Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move that summarizes Britten’s Lachrymae:
Die shall my hopes, but not my faith
That you that of my fall may hearers be
May here despair, which truly saith,
I was more true to love than love to me.