During his lifetime, English composer Benjamin Britten published only one work for organ solo, “Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria” (1946). The prelude and fugue is an unusually mediocre work from the pen of a great composer. It was written for St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton for whom in 1943 Britten had written what is certainly his greatest work featuring the organ, the cantata “Rejoice in the Lamb.” Britten biographical lore implies that the organ solo was dashed off by the composer in bed in a single morning, only to fulfill an obligation to friends. For many years, this was the only organ work of Britten’s available, and it was not widely played or known.
However, in 2004, one of Britten protégés, the composer Colin Matthews, collaborated with Boosey & Hawkes and the Britten Estate to release a volume containing three other organ pieces by Britten that had never been previously published. Britten was a very fast developer, and these works were not juvenilia. They date from the late 1930s/early 1940s, which was the same period in which he wrote some of his most beloved works such as “Ceremony of Carols” and “Hymn to St. Cecilia.”
Of these newly published organ works, I believe that one of them represents the most successful Britten organ solo, the “Prelude to ‘They Walk Alone’.” This work comes from a body of incidental music written in 1938 for a production of a play by Max Catto. While most of the incidental music consists of tiny cues and tags, the prelude is a short mood piece that works very effectively as autonomous organ solo. It is a simple work that exemplifies one of things Britten did tremendously in so many of his works, a transformation of straightforward, plainspoken musical materials into a fresh and compelling sound.