The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten

The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Op. 34 • “Variations & fugue on a theme of Purcell”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

While many composers have tried their hand at creating music with special appeal for young audiences, few nations have produced as many artists deft at so particular a craft as Great Britain. Sir Edward Elgar is perhaps the godfather of this musical line, having produced such genuinely touching, non-condescending gems as Starlight Express (1915) and the two Wand of Youth suites (1907 and 1908), warmly nostalgic works about childhood that demonstrate the composer's success both in relating effortlessly to youngsters and understanding the concept of childhood from afar.

In this regard as well as others, Benjamin Britten was Elgar's worthy successor. Britten never really escaped the lure of subjective musical innocence, yet maintained a perspective that allowed him to produce an "educational" work with the sophistication and polish of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34.

Britten had always been fond of the music of Henry Purcell. When asked to compose a short instructional piece to be used in a film for schools, he plundered a hornpipe from Purcell's Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge (1695) as a theme for a set of variations that colorfully puts the entire orchestra through its paces. After a brash tutti statement of the melody, each of the orchestra's four main sections -- woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion -- is showcased in successive variations, after which the theme is restated in all its tutti grandeur.

Each instrument type is granted some time in the spotlight. In the first, woodwind variation, impish flutes set the stage for a languid oboe duet against a pulsating string background; the clarinets take off in a circus-style whirlwind, only gradually becoming more circumspect. As the string section sets up a pattern of incisive staccati, the pompous bassoons take over to finish the woodwind showcase. Mock-virtuoso violins, sultry violas, and syncopated cellos each have their say in the string variation, and even the plodding bass musters some fiery scales and noble melodies. Britten excelled at writing for the harp, and a dramatic solo for the instrument, introduced by a stoic gong stroke, is no exception. A fanfare of horns and martial trumpet calls riding atop a galloping snare drum rhythm give way to the lower brass in the brass variation. The percussion variation begins with the timpani accompanied by excited string figures; the xylophone solo in particular stands out, as do the castanets and colorful string harmonics.

If the preceding music has perhaps seemed a trifle common -- indeed, the work has at times come under critical attack for its loosely wrought connections -- the following fugue, whose quicksilver subject is introduced by a pair of flutes, certainly cannot be so regarded. The grandest moment in the entire work arrives with the return of Purcell's theme -- which to this point in the fugue has served as a countersubject -- in its original form at the climax. Half the orchestra carries on the wild figurations of the subject, and the two melodies are sung out by the entire orchestra in glorious double counterpoint.