Benjamin Britten

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell), for speaker ad lib & orchestra, Op. 34

    Description by Blair Johnston

    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.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Theme. Allegro maestoso e largamente
    2. Theme: Woodwinds
    3. Theme: Brass
    4. Theme: Strings & Harp
    5. Theme: Percussion
    6. Variation A: Flute & Piccolo. Presto
    7. Variation B: Oboe. Lento
    8. Variation C: Clarinet. Moderato
    9. Variation D: Bassoon. Allegro alla marcia
    10. Variation E: Violins. Brillante - Alla polacca
    11. Variation F: Violas. Meno mosso
    12. Variation G: Cellos
    13. Variation H: Doublebasses. Comminciando lento ma poco a poco accel. al Allegro
    14. Variation I: Harp. Maestoso
    15. Variation J: Horn. L'istesso tempo
    16. Variation K: Trumpet. Vivace
    17. Variation L: Trombone & Tuba. Allegro pomposo
    18. Variation M: Timpani. Moderato
    19. Variation M: Bass Drum & Cymbals
    20. Variation M: Tambourine & Triangle
    21. Variation M: Snare Drum & Wood Block
    22. Variation M: Xylophone
    23. Variation M: Castanets & Gong
    24. Variation M: Whip
    25. Fugue. Allegro molto
    26. Theme

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / RPO RPOSP 009
    2015 Erato
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon 4794306
    2015 Warner Classics 552758
    2014 RCA Red Seal 88843003502
    2013 Supraphon SU 41352
    2013 Virgin Classics / Warner Classics 5099973530121
    2013 Decca 4785364
    2013 Decca
    2013 Chandos CHAN 10784X
    2013 Entertainment Group 13809
    2013 Erato / Virgin Classics 5099960267
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099944029
    2012 ICA Classics ICAC 5053
    2012 Cala Records CACD 0125
    2012 Concerto / Zebralution
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099991762
    2011 Document 231134
    2011 Sony Classical 83287
    2011 Sony Music
    2011 Sony Music Distribution
    2011 W.W. Norton
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099964850
    2010 Reference Recordings 120
    2010 Decca
    2010 Polystar
    2010 RCA Red Seal 8869769100
    2010 First Hand Records 6
    2010 ABC Classics 4764134
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099924274
    2009 EMI Classics
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099969557
    2009 EMI Classics
    2009 Telarc Distribution 80743
    2009 Telarc Distribution
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921752
    2008 Brilliant Classics 8818
    2008 Supraphon 39442
    2008 Deutsche Grammophon 459217
    2008 Decca 4369902
    2007 Decca 4756051
    2007 Decca
    2007 Apex
    2007 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 0946382230
    2007 Warner Classics
    2006 BBC Legends / BBC Music 41842
    2006 Telarc Distribution 60660
    2005 Audiophile Classics / Audiophile Records 101567
    2005 Naxos 8557200
    2005 Deutsche Grammophon 4775254
    2005 Parlophone
    2005 EMI Classics 683542
    2004 BBC Music 4615502
    2004 RCA Victor 82876623572
    2003 Nimbus Records 5295
    2003 JVC Compact Discs 226
    2003 Deutsche Grammophon 000100002
    2003 Accord 115
    2002 Vox / Vox Allegretto 8219
    2001 Virgin 61835
    2001 Unesco 707152
    2001 Deutsche Grammophon
    2001 Deutsche Grammophon 4713712
    2000 BBC Music 4401
    2000 Virgin Classics 61195
    2000 Naxos 554170
    2000 BBC Music 4402
    2000 Music & Arts 4787
    1999 Nimbus 1751
    1999 Decca 458595
    1999 BBC Music 4013
    1999 BBC Music 4005
    1998 Pearl GEM0002
    1998 Sony Classical SMK-60175
    1998 Telarc Distribution 80460
    1998 Avid 601
    1997 EMI Music Distribution 55394
    1996 Core 9469
    1996 Cala Records 1022
    1996 London 444104
    1996 Naxos 550499
    1996 Sony Music Distribution 62638
    1996 Vanguard 8096
    1995 RCA / RCA Victor 68131
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 185
    1995 Classics for Pleasure / EMI Music Distribution 568577
    1995 Nimbus 5450
    1994 Chandos 9221
    1994 Nimbus 7017
    1994 BIS 420
    1994 Supraphon 1119452001
    1994 Sony Music Distribution 64079
    1994 RCA 62563
    1993 BMG 61226
    1992 RCA / RCA Victor GD 60878
    1992 RCA Victor 60878
    1992 Naxos 550335
    1992 Sony Music Distribution 47541
    1991 Teldec 73126
    1991 Sony Classical SFK-46712
    1990 London 4256592
    1990 Deutsche Grammophon 415921
    1988 Deutsche Grammophon 423239
    1987 Telarc Distribution 80126
    1986 London 417509
    Reference Recordings 120
    Music & Arts 787
    Telarc Distribution 80660
    Collins Records 13052
    Apex 89082
    Naxos 565004
    Classic FM 4763789
    IMP BBC Radio Classics 9111
    EMI Music Distribution 64300
    West 0314097759
    Erato 92880
    EMI Music Distribution 67723
    McGraw Hill 700808
    BBC Music Magazine 94
    Vox Allegretto 8001
    Supraphon 111945
    EMI 63177
    Sony Music Distribution 27244
    McGraw Hill 6545
    Telegraph
    Warner Music 10004