14 Nov 2013

Britten – Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, op. 34 (Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell)

by Jeff Count


Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, gong, whip, castanets, Chinese block, harp, strings, optional speaker.

Duration: 18 minutes.


THE COMPOSER – BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976) – 1945 was the culmination of an incredibly productive period for Britten. It was highly successful too, so much so that it concerned him. “I am a worried by my excessive local success at the moment…” he had written in a letter two years prior, “…I hope it doesn’t mean there’s too much superficial charm about my pieces.” A strange fear for a man who was about to pen Peter Grimes.


THE HISTORY – Once Grimes had been staged and was free to conquer the opera world, Britten turned his attention to other projects, including the interesting commission offered by the BBC back in 1944. Britten was asked to provide the score for an education film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra in which Malcolm Sargent would lead the London Symphony in a narrative/musical tour of the sections that comprise an orchestra. Britten based his piece on the Rondeau movement of Henry Purcell’s incidental music for the play Abdelazer (The Moor’s Revenge). 1945 was the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death and Britten had already paid homage in his Second String Quartet and The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. For the Young Person’s Guide, the Purcell Rondeau was cast as the unifying theme for the entire work. Britten presents the theme first for full orchestra and then uses it to highlight the sonic capabilities of each of the ensemble’s large sections. From there the individual instrument types get their due in turn, followed by a blinding fugue that reassembles the orchestra and builds to the electrifying return of the opening theme. Though intended for film, Young Person’s Guide works equally well as a concert piece and premiered that way in 1946. Britten surely knew this while he composed and it has become one of his most popular works for the symphony stage. Superficial charm? Plenty. Undeniably brilliant craftsmanship? Oh, yes.


THE WORLD – The first meetings of the United Nations occurred in 1946. Also that year, Charles de Gaulle resigned as President of France, Juan Perón was elected President of Argentina and the Atomic Energy Commission was formed in the U.S.


THE CONNECTION – Young Person’s Guide has appeared often on Utah Symphony education programs. The last Masterworks performance was in 2000 under Keith Lockhart.