Benjamin Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell

performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, or below by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Jukka-Pekka Saraste

This is fun. And of musical integrity.

There are some pieces with either specific intent or inherent quality of being enjoyable or accessible to children. Today’s children. Children who spend more time looking down at a screen than up at the world, but then again so do I, it’s just that me and said children are doing very different things, unless those children are browsing Wikipedia and writing emails.

I won’t talk about it here, but I can’t remember how or why I have such vivid memories of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I guess it’s the Disney cartoon, but I remember it as so much more than that. In any case, that’s one of those pieces that we’ll get around to eventually, but Britten’s Young Person’s Guide is another one, with a different approach. While Prokofiev has a story and a narrator, Britten’s Guide is absolutely, purely musical, and I have thoughts about that.

It uses a theme from the second movement of incidental music that Henry Purcell wrote for Aphra Behn’s 1676 Abdelazer, specifically the rondo. That really has no meaning for the children, I’m sure, but it does mean the whole piece is very English.

The work was “originally commissioned for an educational documentary film called Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Mathieson and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent.” It was dedicated, or rather “inscribed to”, the four children of John and Jean Maud.

I’m not going to elaborate too much here on the exact structure of the work, because that can all be found in this section of the Wiki. Check that out for more detail. What I will say is that the theme and variations layout is a suitable one for what Britten does here, which is a Guide in the sense, I think, of being a tour.

If you were giving a tour of a building or facility, I think you might do it something like this: come on into the lobby, where I’ll first show you a map or diagram or scale model of the entire place, then show you specific wings or departments and what they do, and then we’re off to walk through it all individually.

Britten does much the same thing. This theme of ours (from Purcell) is played first by the entire orchestra (the overview), then by the families of instruments (woodwinds, then brass, then strings and then even percussion) (like the wings or departments), and then we break it down further.

This is where the variations begin, and each variation features a specific instrument, following a slightly different order from the families mentioned above, starting high and ending low. First we get flute and piccolo, then oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and then we’re done with woodwinds and move on to strings, from high to low, then harp, then brass (horns, trumpets, trombones/tuba together), and then percussion, both pitched and unpitched.

After a tour like that, you might move to an area where you see the production team in action, or get to try it yourself, or taste a bit of the delicacies they’re making. And after Britten puts all of the instruments in the limelight, they move on to the fugue from the ‘variations and fugue’ of the subtitle. The tour itself obviously takes up the majority of the time, but we get to see another ‘big picture’ overall view and some new material with the fugue, a lively, colorful, exciting thing, especially now to get all of the instruments entering one at a time, not one after the other, but on top of each other, and the music reaches increasing complexity without ever getting too dense or chaotic.

After that, as the tour finishes, we do come back around to the original theme, Purcell’s original content, the starting point of our tour, through the gift shop and back into the lobby where we started, in a really glorious, lively, exciting finish.

It may be that Britten did not want to be most known for a piece such as this (he wrote lots of other, arguably more serious music), but despite its lighter nature and friendly, approachable style, it’s actually very musically sound. “I’m going to write a variation and fugue for children” doesn’t sound like a very sound idea, but the composer manages to juggle all aspects of the undertaking. Each variation is engaging enough to keep (maybe some) children’s interest, but each one is a welcome complement to what comes before and after, while writing content that shows off the qualities of each instrument. I love the bassoon section, the harp shimmers, etc.

While the above explanation might make the piece sound very episodic or choppy, it is really anything but that. Britten, as orchestral tour guide/composer, never has to double back, look around a corner; we never have to retrace our steps or walk a long way down some hall to get to the next point of interest. Once the red carpet starts rolling out, it’s one feature after another before we reach the fugue and the original starting point of the piece.

The journey, the narrative of this work isn’t one that tells a story of struggle and accomplishment, it isn’t one of conflict and resolution, but it is still musically very sound, and a testament to Britten’s talents. Even as a person who’s heard the work before and knows what’s coming around every corner, seeing it live is still an enjoyable experience.

This was a much lighter first work for Britten, but we will eventually, at some point be seeing more from him. We will also eventually be seeing (far) more from his fellow countrymen as part of this series, but also in what is to come next year, so stay tuned for all of those things.

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