The Kennedy Center

The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34

About the Work

Benjamin Britten Composer: Benjamin Britten
© Richard Freed

Britten composed his Purcell Variations in 1945 for an educational film, the spoken text for which was written by his frequent librettist Eric Crozier; the concert premiere was given by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (not yet given its ?Royal? patent at that time) under Sir Malcolm Sargent on October 15, 1946. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work were conducted by Howard Mitchell on February 6 and 7, 1962, and the most recent ones were given at Wolf Trap on July 13, 2002, under Leonard Slatkin?all these without narration.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, Chinese wood block, castanets, whip, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, harp, and strings. Duration, 17 minutes.
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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, then given to the woodwinds, then to the brass, then (in slightly varied shape) to the strings and harp, and finally declaimed rhythmically by the percussion before being restated by the orchestra at full strength. 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: (1) flutes and piccolo, with harp accompaniment; (2) oboes; (3) clarinets; (4) bassoons; (5) violins; (6) violas; (7) cellos; (8) double basses; (9) harp; (10) horns; (11) trumpets; (12) trombones and tuba; (13) percussion. The timpani begin the final variation, and provide a ritornello between the appearances of the other instruments: bass drum with cymbals, tambourine with triangle, snare drum with wood block, xylophone, castanets with gong, and finally the whip. 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, 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.