Benjamin Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten

Once again, the gift-giving season is upon us, and once again, I have a special treat for young viewers: Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is subtitled, “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell”.

I can’t think of a better way to introduce young people – or people of any age, for that matter – to the wonders of the symphony orchestra. The Young Person’s Guide is a masterpiece. I’m especially pleased with the attached video. The audio quality is superb, and the many close-ups make it easy to associate each of the instruments with its particular sound.

This is a short video – only 17 minutes – and I encourage parents of young children to watch it with them. In it, the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne is conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. I’ve added time indicators to the description below to help match up the various instruments of the orchestra with their appearance in the video.

The following description of The Young Person’s Guide was written by the noted American music critic, Richard Freed.

In 1945, just after the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes, Britten was asked by the British Ministry of Education to compose the music for a film to be called “Instruments of the Orchestra”, designed to acquaint young people with the characters of the various instruments and instrumental choirs that make up the modern orchestra. He went to work on this assignment early the following year, turning to the variation form that figures so prominently in his catalogue of works and taking his theme in this case from the rondeau Henry Purcell composed in 1695 for a play by Mrs. Aphra Behn called “Abdelazer” or “The Moor’s Revenge”.

For the film version, a spoken text, to introduce the respective variations and instruments, was written by Eric Crozier, who was to provide Britten in the next few years with librettos for three operas and the cantata “Saint Nicolas”. Some six weeks after the concert premiere, in the fall of 1946, the film had its first showing in London; within a year or so The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was well on the way to establishing itself as the most widely known work composed by an Englishman since Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” and, like those marches, a stunning showpiece for the virtuoso orchestra.

The theme itself is given a full workout before the sequence of variations begins. It is stated first by the full orchestra [0:05], then given to the woodwinds [0:27], then to the brass [0:50], then (in slightly varied shape) to the strings and harp [1:10], and finally declaimed rhythmically by the percussion [1:27] before being restated by the orchestra at full strength [1:43]. The various choirs having been thus introduced, we proceed to the chain of variations, 13 in number, in which the individual instruments are spotlighted.

Each of the variations reflects a different character: some tender, some slightly sardonic, some mysterious, some straightforwardly humorous, all charged with great originality and wit, in the following sequence: flutes and piccolo, with harp accompaniment [2:01]; oboes [2:34]; clarinets [3:35]; bassoons [4:20]; violins [5:11]; violas [5:44]; cellos [6:45]; double basses [7:55]; harp [8:54]; horns [9:44]; trumpets [10:34]; trombones and tuba [11:02]; percussion [12:15]. The timpani begin the final variation, and provide a ritornello between the appearances of the other instruments: bass drum with cymbals [12:31], tambourine with triangle [12:43], snare drum with wood block [12:55], xylophone [13:06], castanets with gong [13:18], and finally, the whip [13:33]. The entire percussion section then celebrates the end of the chain of variations, subsiding to permit the xylophone to lead into the fugue.

In this final section, Britten puts his fragmented orchestra back together in the grandest style, beginning with the piccolo [14:11], moving through the other instruments and choirs, and concluding with a glorious proclamation of the original Purcell theme by the brass as the woodwinds and strings exult in the fugue theme and the percussion link the two in a festive frame.

Notes by Richard Freed

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Published in: on November 30, 2017 at 4:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating! Thx.


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