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Composed: 1946

Length: c. 17 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (Chinese block, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, gong, side drum, tambourine, triangle, whip, xylophone), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 24, 1949, Benjamin Britten conducting

About this Piece

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was conceived by Britten as a score for a 1946 documentary film, Instruments of the Orchestra, and it was presented in that medium in London. Soon it was appropriated for the concert hall by symphony orchestras for performance, often with spoken commentary. Indeed, the composition is of such exemplary quality that it has taken a firm place in the purely instrumental repertoire, and is frequently performed without narration.

The theme that is to be the basis of a series of brilliant and imaginative variations, a stirring dance tune from Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge, by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), is stated by 1) full orchestra, 2) woodwinds, 3) brass, 4) strings, 5) percussion, 6) full orchestra again. Having exposed the theme in the four sections of the orchestra, Britten goes on to put it through remarkably contrasting musical guises, all spotlighting in turn each member of the four orchestral sections – woodwinds: piccolo, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons; strings: violins, violas, cellos, basses, and harp; brass: horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba; and percussion: a dazzling cadenza.

After introducing the orchestra members individually, Britten reassembles them for a fugue, with each instrument entering in the order of the variations. Finally, Purcell’s D-minor tune makes a heroic return and the composition ends in a blaze of D-major grandeur.

In light of the splendor of the orchestration in The Young Person’s Guide, it is worth mentioning that Britten did not have extensive experience writing for full symphony orchestra prior to it; his catalog shows the Sinfonia da Requiem of 1940, the opera Peter Grimes in 1945, several concertos, incidental music, and music for radio. Clearly, his command of the symphony orchestra was just one of the facets that made Britten one of the great composers of the 20th century.

— Orrin Howard