The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is well known today as an orchestral showpiece and a staple of the orchestral repertoire. It was, however, originally composed as the sound track for an educational documentary made in 1945 by the Crown Film Unit for the UK Ministry of Education. Intended as a means of introducing young audiences to the distinctive sound of each orchestral instrument, Instruments of the Orchestra was directed by Muir Mathieson and first screened on 29 November 1946 at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square.

The spoken narration was written by Eric Crozier, who was the librettist for Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, which was first performed in the same year. Britten later prepared a concert version of the work and it is in this form that the music attained remarkable popularity, introducing many generations of schoolchildren to classical music. For many years it was indelibly associated with its charismatic original conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent.

The music is made up of a series of 13 variations based on a tune by the 17th-century composer Henry Purcell, which originally formed part of the incidental music to the play Abdelazer by Aphra Behn. Britten was a great admirer and advocate of Purcell’s music, which he regularly included in his own concerts as a pianist or conductor and as part of the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. Each variation introduces a different instrument or section of the orchestra, illustrating the characteristics of each. The work culminates in a grand fugue for full orchestra, in which each section is re-introduced before the theme returns in the brass in expansive fashion.

Benjamin Britten

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