Britten: Five Courtly Dances from Gloriana

Born appropriately on 22 November, St. Cecilia’s Day (the Patron Saint of music), Edward Benjamin Britten was the fourth child of a Lowestoft dentist. Encouraged by a doting mother, he privately studied composition with the Sussex-born composer Frank Bridge. His piano teacher was Harold Samuel. Later, at the Royal College of Music, he studied composition under John Ireland.

Britten’s music first attracted a wider audience when in 1936 he wrote background music for three GPO Film Unit “shorts”: The King’s Stamp, Coal Face, and – most notably – Night Mail.

Britten lived in the USA from 1939 to 1942 in the company of Peter Pears and WH Auden, where friendships were struck which were to have a profound effect on his future. During these years Britten wrote his Violin Concerto, Sinfonia da Requiem and his first opera Paul Bunyan. Also the first thoughts of what was to be his most popular opera – Peter Grimes – were taking root.

Gloriana, his sixth opera, was commissioned by Covent Garden to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. The libretto was by William Plomer, after “Elizabeth and Essex” by Lytton Strachey. Joan Cross sang the part of Elizabeth, and Peter Pears the Earl of Essex.

Heavily criticised after its first performance, Gloriana has never found a permanent niche in any opera house. The criticism was mainly aimed at the opera’s scenario, which tended to highlight the Queen’s frailties, her personal relationship with the Earl of Essex, and the intrigues and jealousies at Court. It was thought that the persona of Queen Elizabeth I of England should have been portrayed as the monarch of a burgeoning European power. Britten was also criticised for choosing to close the opera with the spoken word, rather than musically.

The Courtly Dances appear in the third scene of Act II. In the Great Room of Whitehall Palace, a ball is being given by the Queen. Accompanied by a stage band, the curtain rises on a stately Pavane, following which the Countess of Essex requests a Galliard. The Queen enters. On catching sight of the Countess, her jealous rival, she commands a La Volta – a vigorous dance during which the ladies are tossed in the air by their partners. It is so vigorous in fact that at its end the Queen further commands that the “Ladies, go change thy linen”! Meanwhile a Morris Dance is performed to entertain those who remain in the room.

From the Opera’s music Britten subsequently compiled a Symphonic Suite Op.53A. The dances outlined above, together with a March, Coranto, and Coda form the third section of the Suite as follows:



A running or sliding dance in ¾ time.


A slow and dignified dance (scored for brass choir).


Scored for flute and drum.


A lively dance in ¾ time (scored for strings).


A wild and vigorous dance with much twirling of partners.