Instruments of the orchestra

The use of the instruments of the orchestra

Lucy Walker surveys three orchestral masterpieces of the early 20th century.

The 20th century saw rapid and far-reaching developments in the expressive range (and size) of the classical orchestra. The conventional classical forms continued, although the symphony had almost reached its bursting point in terms of size and ambition under Gustav Mahler’s auspices. The narratives of ‘tone poems’, explored so effectively in the 19th century by Berlioz, Liszt and later on Richard Strauss, became more abstract and figurative. Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was not so much a story as an evocation of a sensual afternoon; Ravel’s La Valse is more of a parody than a tale. In both cases, explorations in orchestral tone are arguably more the ‘subject’ of the work than the poetic title. Increasingly throughout the 20th century, the architecture of orchestral pieces was based on an interplay of sonority and gesture rather than on the rules of conventional harmony.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909)

Schoenberg was absolutely explicit about his intention to explore ‘sound and mood’ rather than the ‘architecture’ of harmony. Regarding his Five Orchestral Pieces he wrote: ‘I am expecting colossal things of them, sound and mood especially. That is all they are about: absolutely not symphonic – precisely the opposite – no architecture, no structure. Merely a bright, uninterrupted interchange of colours, rhythms and moods’.[1] This work emerged from a remarkable period in Schoenberg’s compositional life: in the ten years before his next statement of intent (serialism, or 12-tone music) he expanded, then exploded the concept of tonality, dumbfounding audiences as he went with such works as Erwartung, op. 17 and Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21. Throughout, he strove to ‘liberate the dissonance’:[2] instead of using dissonance as a signifier of turbulence, which was then resolved by a ‘consonance’, or a more comfortable sound, ‘dissonance’ in Schoenberg’s works became the norm, forming the fabric of the work. A critic at the premiere of op. 16 at the Promenade Concerts in London in September 1912 wrote ‘It was like a poem in Tibetan; not one single soul could possibly have understood it at first hearing’.

Each movement was, in the end, given a ‘programmatic’ title, but Schoenberg only did so to appease his publisher. He wrote in his diary that he was on the whole ‘unsympathetic to the idea. For the wonderful thing about music is that one can say everything in it, so that he who knows understand everything; and yet one hasn’t given away ones secrets, the things one doesn’t admit even to oneself. But titles give you away…’. The titles themselves are ‘Forebodings; Things Past; Colours; Peripeteia [a sudden reversal of fortune or circumstance]; and The Obbligato Recitative’ – the latter almost sarcastic in its banal description.  The orchestra is immense, including 6 horns, 4 trombones and triple woodwind (Schoenberg later reduced it in a 1949 revision of the work).

Arnold Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16

Arnold Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces, Zweig MS 77

This manuscript is a fair copy of three pieces (1, 3, 4 and 5, bars 1-16) from Arnold Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke, op.16, written out by the composer and his pupil Erwin Stein.

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Arnold Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op.16, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft (NAXOS). 3. Chord-Colours (Farben). Shelfmark : 1CD0282871.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Instead of a ‘journey’ through harmonic means, each short piece explores gestures and experiments in timbre. The first piece, for example, features a fanfare, an insistent trichord and an ostinato, delivered through short, spasmodic utterances from all sections of the orchestra. Momentum is achieved through the piling up of these utterances, until it ends seemingly abruptly on a loud punctuated flutter-tongue chord, as if the brass is blowing a raspberry. Compared to this, the second movement sounds almost conventional harmonically with a distinctly romantic, yearning atmosphere reminiscent of his earlier Verklärte Nacht, op. 4, whereas the third is the most explicit in delivering Schoenberg’s aims of being ‘about’ sound and mood. Peripeteia is short and explosive, hurtling towards its conclusion; while the key to the final movement is a single melody, passed on like a relay across the whole orchestra, concealed within its own texture.

Gustav Holst’s The Planets, op. 32 (1914-1916)

The working title for Holst’s most famous composition was Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra, as a direct homage to Schoenberg’s op. 16. Holst had been greatly influenced by its scale and ambition following a performance at The Queen’s Hall in 1914, and bought a copy of the score. The orchestra required for The Planets is even vaster than Schoenberg’s, including even more woodwind, a huge percussion section and both organ and celeste. His piece is more overtly programmatic at first glance in representing a number of planets in the solar system, but Holst’s interest was not scientific or pragmatic but astrological. Holst developed a great interest in astrology during a holiday in 1913 – given to preparing charts for his friends – and had been drawn to theosophy and mysticism for many years before that. The final movement is subtitled Neptune: The Mystic – and feels the most personal of the movements, with its deliberate and ambiguous incompleteness, described by Holst’s daughter Imogen as ‘unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter… until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.’

Gustav Holst: The Planets

Gustav Holst, 'The Planets', Add MS 57881

This manuscript shows the arrangement for two pianos of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus from The Planets, Holst's most famous work.

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Gustav Holst, The Planets, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. 1. Mars, The Bringer of War. (NAXOS). Shelfmark : 1CD0232058.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Gustav Holst, The Planets, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. 4. Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity (NAXOS). Shelfmark : 1CD0232058.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

The piece as a whole showcases the entire orchestra, each movement exploring a different mood or sonority, often underpinned by a rhythmic surprise or displacement. ‘Mars, the bringer of war’ – eight minutes of music that gave birth to a thousand film scores – combines an ominously militaristic drum and string rhythm (in a disturbing five-beat rhythm), with chromatically moving triads, interrupted by an initially clashing theme on the tenor tuba. Venus plays itself out mostly in the higher reaches of the orchestra, including harp, celeste and glockenspiel. The third movement, Mercury, interweaves a tricksy opposition of rhythms, while the most upbeat movement – Jupiter – dances exuberantly across an abundance of themes. Uranus is similarly virtuosic, while Saturn is perhaps the most disconcerting and melancholic with its predominance of double basses and low brass and a ‘ticking clock’ in the woodwind.

Perhaps surprisingly, the complete work was not premiered until four years after Holst finished it, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates on 15 November 1920.[3] He was irritated by partial performances of it, especially those which concluded after Jupiter, as if with a ‘happy’ ending. It is a less harmonically subversive work than Schoenberg’s, but Holst’s abstract study of the planets’ astrological significance, plus its ‘fade-out’ ending were unconventional enough at the time. Holst grew frustrated eventually by its popular success, feeling it unfairly eclipsed the rest of his work. It has certainly endured as one of the most attractive and recognisable works in the orchestral repertoire. With its influence on film scores, it sounds more ‘contemporary’ and ahead of its time as the years go by.

Benjamin Britten’s Instruments of the Orchestra / Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, op. 34 (1945)

Britten’s Young Person’s Guide is, as it says on the tin, a thorough-going tour of the modern orchestra and more explicit in its aims of exploring orchestral timbre and individual instrumental characteristics. It combines a number of Britten’s preoccupations: music that is ‘useful’ and accessible to all; the form of theme and variation; and the chance to show off his genius at counterpoint across a vast orchestral palette. While simple in intent, it is highly virtuosic for the players involved and was originally ‘premiered’ as an educational film with Sir Malcolm Sargent introducing the viewer to each department of the immaculately turned out London Symphony Orchestra.

Filming of Instruments of the Orchestra

Photograph of the filming of Instruments of the Orchestra

This photograph shows the filming of the educational documentary Instruments of the Orchestra, for which Benjamin Britten composed the music, known today as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

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The piece takes a brief overview of each orchestral section, with a presentation of the theme in each case, followed by more detailed scrutiny of individual instruments through the variations that follow. Britten exploits the particular instrumental qualities that appealed to him: the melancholy of the oboe, the liquid versatility of the clarinet, the ‘lusingando’ – or flattering – beauty of the cello, and a full artillery of percussion – a section Britten often composed for with particular attention to detail. The dazzling finale consists of an elaborate fugue over which Purcell’s theme is triumphantly played in full. In the fugue section of Britten’s composition draft (folios 12r and 12v) the exuberance of the music is visible, even in short score – Britten’s swift, neat handwriting almost flying off the page in the flurrying scales for woodwind and strings.

Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, MS Mus. 1769

Benjamin Britten's The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra originated as music for an educational film, Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), before being transformed by the composer into a piece for the concert hall.

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Usage terms Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Boosey & Hawkes and Britten-Pears Foundation

Benjamin Britten, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34 ‘Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell’ (extract). Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford (NAXOS). Shelfmark : 1CD0252116.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.


[1] Quoted in (, accessed 12 April 2018.

[2] Suggested in, accessed 12 April 2018.

[3] Subsequent movements have been added in more recent years in response to further astrological discoveries. In 2000 Colin Matthews was commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra to compose ‘Pluto, The Renewer’; and in 2006 The Berlin Philharmonic commissioned four composers (Kaija Saariaho, Matthias Pintscher, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Brett Dean) to write four further ‘asteroid’ movements.

© Lucy Walker, Britten-Pears Foundation

  • Lucy Walker
  • Lucy Walker is the Director of Public Programming and Learning at the Britten-Pears Foundation, based at The Red House in Aldeburgh. She is responsible for the Foundation’s increasing roster of events, including discovery sessions, recitals, and family days, as well as overseeing learning programmes for all ages centred on Britten’s life and work.  She is the editor of Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Works (Boydell, 2009) and Britten in Pictures (Boydell, 2012). As a pianist, she has performed in numerous recitals accompanying singers and instrumentalists, has recorded Songs from the Exotic with the mezzo-soprano Polly May (Delphian, 2001) and features on the NMC disc Britten in America (2013). She has also given pre-performance talks and held study days for Aldeburgh Music, Glyndebourne, Britten Sinfonia, The Hallé, English Touring Opera and at many other venues in the UK and abroad.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.