Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, op. 34

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            Benjamin Britten is one of the last century’s most respected composers, and unquestionably the most influential and admired British composer from WW II until his death in 1976.   Fantastically gifted from an early age (almost a thousand compositions before his first mature, published one!), he was blessed with the early attainment of an authentic personal “voice” in his musical style.  That style was at once perceived as modern, fresh, and non-derivative—and yet generally accessible and popular with the broad public for art music.   From the beginning he was practically contemptuous of the main stream of revered British composers—Elgar, Vaughan William, Holst, and others, many of whom he snarkily dubbed the “pastoralists.”  Their utilization of traditional English folk music as an important stylistic source was substantially criticized by Britten as evidence of a lack of imagination and a reactionary step in a century whose art was moving rapidly into the future. 

            Britten was an active and successful composer of instrumental music—the list is long, one only has to think of such works as Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Four Sea Interludes, from “Peter Grimes,” film scores, and several important solo concertos.   Yet, it is clear that he had a special gift for vocal music, and there are hundreds of works in various genres as evidence; but, in point of fact, it is in the field of opera and stage works that he made perhaps his most important contribution, starting with his first big success, Peter Grimes.  That opera was finished in 1945, and he went on to compose well over a dozen more works that collectively place him with Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Janáček as the giants of twentieth-century opera.  And it was in 1945 that he was approached by the British Ministry of Education to compose a work for a film to acquaint youngsters with the instruments of the orchestra.   As is so often the case in commissions in the arts, a modest proposal results in a work that far exceeds the original expectations.  Britten composed a masterpiece, and it is probably his most-performed and popular composition.  Originally written with a narrator that walks the children through the instrumental families and their components, today it is frequently simply performed as a concert work without the narrative—a custom well justified by its quality and scope.

            Subtitled “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell,” the composition takes as its basis a memorable, short, dance theme from the incidental music composed in 1695 by the great English composer for a play, Abdelazer.  If it sounds somewhat familiar, it has been used on British television productions from time to time whenever a dignified, serious, historical mood is sought.  But, it was perfect for Britten’s intentions, for anyone can remember and follow it through its permutations.  

            The conceit is simple enough:  the full orchestra begins boldly with the tune, immediately followed by a clear version of the theme for first the woodwind section, next the brass section, followed by the strings, and finally the percussion section.   So, each section is clearly heard alone.  What then ensues is a remarkable set of thirteen variations, each featuring one of the specific instruments of the orchestra.  These are not the repetitious variations that one may remember from works for solo instruments that preserve the tune in the midst of increasing virtuosic repetitions (think “Carnival of Venice” for cornet”).   But in the other major way of writing variations, which many call “character variations,” the composer—often quite slyly and cleverly—extracts some small ideas from the theme and works them through in contrasting variations.   Each variation thus has a unique mood, tempo, and fundamental idea, generally masking from the audience its origin in the basic theme.  Brahms was a master at this.  Britten begins with the piccolo and flute, then on to the oboes, clarinets, and bassoons—each with its own unique variation that displays its respective musical capabilities admirably.   Tempos vary, some are reflective, other brisk—and each mood is unique. The composer then moves to the strings (including harp), likewise moving down from high to low instruments.   The brass get the same treatment, and finally a clever one for the percussion.  Of particular interest is how Britten forges simple accompaniments from totally different instruments to contrast with the featured instrument in its solo variation.  So, for example, the clarinets are accompanied by the tuba; the violas by the brass; the basses by woodwinds and percussion; the trumpets by snare drum and pizzicato strings; and so on.  After every instrument has had its spotlight, the energetic fugue begins, and as above, the piccolo and then the flutes lead, with each different orchestra instrument taking up the new fugue theme in turn, the whole building in sound and intensity as they all gradually join in.   The whirlwind of orchestral sound continues and builds and then a glorious moment occurs.  Over this frenetic, careening activity the brass emerge magisterially with the noble main theme of Purcell sounding out in a slower tempo over the tempest.   It may be a “young person’s guide,” but Britten has composed a brilliant work for all, that stands on its own as a display piece of the remarkable resources of the symphony orchestra and the fecundity of the composer’s imagination.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan