The Austrian press response to the premiere of Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge stressed both its cosmopolitanism as well as its Englishness: the Salzburger Volksblatt noted ‘a rather un-English parodistic élan’, whilst the Salburger Chronik found that ‘the extent to which the English musical sensibility is removed from ours was evidenced by the ‘Wiener Waltz’ variation’. Such tensions between recent European music and those of the English tradition have been played out in the critical response to the work. To date, analyses have framed the range of stylistic and national characteristics present in the Variations in terms of harmonic or topical arguments. Yet Donald Mitchell, drawing on Wilfred Meller’s claim that Britten is ‘essentially a rhetorical composer’, has noted that the English and late Viennese traditions that Britten called upon were both rhetorical and theatrical. It is surprising, therefore, that accounts of the work have tended to neglect or under-represent such aspects of the music. In this paper, I propose that the unique blend of European modernism and English traditions to be found in the Variations are given voice in the rhetorical nature of the language, considered in its broadest, gestural, sense to include aspects of harmony, melody, articulation, colour. Understanding how Britten shapes such gestures both structurally and rhetorically (dramatically) allows us to understand better the synthesis of the conflicting traditions in this work (and by extension, much of his output).