Britten's Two Portraits for strings - the composer himself called them 'Sketches' - were composed in August and September 1930, during the summer holidays preceding the sixteen-year-old composer's first term at the Royal College of Music, in London.
Both are musical depictions of character, the first portraying Britten's school friend, David Layton, and the second, introducing a solo Viola (Britten's own string instrument), a self-portrait of the composer. According to Britten's diary, he planned to compose a third portrait, again for strings, that was to depict another school friend, Peter Floyd, but this movement was not written. However, David Layton was to be portrayed again, though very differently, in Britten's later quartet suite, Alla Quartetto Serioso (1933), itself revised and re-titled in 1936 as Three Divertimenti.
The Pencil manuscript score, in the Britten-Pears Library at Aldeburgh, although hastily written, is very detailed, ad dynamics and phrasing are carefully notated throughout. However in several places in the first 'Portrait' the notes themselves are either difficult to decipher, or, due to the highly chromatic nature of the music, difficult to interpret - in some cases Britten has clearly made notational 'spelling' mistakes, which have been silently corrected in this editon. A list of those places where the reading of the manuscript is doubtful may be obtained from the Britten-Pears Library, Aldeburgh.
As with virtually all orchestral music from his youth, Britten did not hear either 'Portrait' performed. The first performance of Two Portraits was given by the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on 5th December 1995, as part of a series entitled 'Britten's Apprenticeship'. The first concert performance of Portrait No.1 was given by the Britten Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andreas Mitisek, at the Konzerthaus, Schubert-Saal, Vienna, on 10th February 1996. The first concert performance of Portrait No.2 was given by Sinfonia 21, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, on 8th February 1996 at St John's, Smith Square, London. Martin Altrim was the Viola soloist.