Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England.
Died December 4, 1976 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England.

Benjamin Britten

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Opus 34

Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell

Composed: 1945.
First Performance: October 15, 1946 with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, Chinese wood block, castanets, whip, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, harp, and strings. 
Duration: ~19 minutes.

Benjamin Britten began piano lessons at the age of five and was composing songs by the age of ten. At 13 he began composition studies with composer Frank Bridge (1879 – 1941), and in 1930 he entered the Royal College of Music. In 1937 he met the tenor Peter Pears, who would remain a lifelong partner and vocal interpreter. In August of the same year, he gained considerable attention with his Frank Bridge Variations which was performed at the Salzburg Festival.

Britten’s first stage triumph was his opera Peter Grimes (1945). He went on to write a total of 13 operas, and is rivaled only by Puccini and Strauss in the number of performances of operas written in the 20th century. Although he wrote in a wide range of genres, his operas and vocal music form the most significant core of his output. He performed often as a conductor and pianist as well as being a bit of an entrepreneur. In 1948, Britten, Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier founded the Aldeburgh Festival.

In the same year as Peter Grimes, the British Ministry of Education commissioned Britten to compose the music for a film to be called Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), directed by composer/conductor Muir Mathieson (1911–1975), and featuring a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. This film intended to familiarize children with the standard instruments used in a symphony orchestra. Britten decided that a theme and variations followed by a fugue would be suitable, and titled his new work Variations on a Theme of Purcell. Montagu Slater (1902-1956), Britten’s librettist for Peter Grimes, adapted Britten’s original text for the narration read by Sir Malcolm Sargent (The narration is sometimes omitted in concert performances).  Eric Crozier followed with an alternate narration and that is the version printed in the published score. Tonight we will hear the unknown (and perhaps never heard before) original narration written in Britten’s hand in his manuscript score.

The great English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) wrote incidental music for the 1695 revival of Aphra Behn’s 1676 play Abdelazer or The Moor’s Revenge. Behn was the first English woman to successfully make her living as an author. Britten based the variations used in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra on a theme of Purcell’s Rondeau (no similarity to a rondo) movement. Purcell’s Rondeau has been frequently adapted since Britten brought it to the forefront of the public with this work in 1945, notably in the 2005 soundtrack to Pride and Prejudice.

Purcell’s theme is first stated by the full orchestra, then by each of the four sections: woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion. Thirteen variations follow, each one featuring the individual instruments. The work closes with a fugue on an original theme, with the instruments entering in the same order as they appeared in the variations. As the fugue scurries along in the woodwinds and strings, Purcell’s theme makes a stately return in the brass, bringing the work to a thrilling conclusion.

Purcell’s Theme

Last year Britten’s pencil manuscript composing score to what was titled Variations on a Theme of Purcell, Op.34 came up for auction at Sotheby’s London.  The score was purchased by the Scheides for the Scheide Library.  It was then determined that the score was a British National Treasure, and that if a buyer in the UK could be found to match the hammer price then the purchase price would be refunded to the Scheides and the score would remain in England.  An undisclosed buyer “very high up”, and presumed to be a member of the Royal Family, matched the price so the score could remain on British soil, but the British Library was very kind to provide photographs of the score to the Scheides in lieu of the real thing.

Narration by Britten from the manuscript

Variations on a theme of Purcell Op.34

Here you see before you, boys and girls, a full symphony orchestra – comprised of nearly/about a hundred (60 – 80??) musicians.

The fine noise of an orchestra, which you know so well, is made by these musicians either blowing, scraping, or banging the instruments which they hold in their hands.  Now using a grand tune of our own English composer Henry Purcell, we will tell you the names of these instruments and let you hear their own particular sound.

First of all, all the instruments together:

[music]

Of the instruments which you blow, some are made of wood, and called collectively, the woodwind.

[music]

And some are made out of brass – the brass instruments.

[music]

The other are the instruments you scrape with a bow – the strings!

[music]

Finally, the instruments you hit – the percussion.

[music]

Now listen to the instruments which make up these groups.  first – the highest of the woodwind instruments, the flutes – and their small brother, the piccolo.

[music]

Now , also members of the woodwind group, but that are known as “double-reed” instruments, the oboes.

[music]

Not unlike the oboes to look at, but single reed instruments, are the clarinets.

[music]

Then the lowest of the woodwind, like the oboe a double reed instrument, the bassoons.

[music]

By far the most numerous instruments in the orchestra are the strings of which the highest are the violins, divided in two parts: the first violins, and second violins.

[music]

The same shape, held the same way, but slightly larger than the violins and darker in tone are the violas.

[music]

And larger, held between the legs, are the cellos.

[music]

The double basses are about the same shape, but even larger than the cellos.

[music]

Also a stringed instrument, but quite a different shape, and only plucked is the harp.

[music]

Now we come to the brass instruments.  First of all, the horns – four of them.

[music]

Then the trumpets, which every boy (and girl) must know.

[music]

And then are the solemn trombones, and the bass tuba that so often plays with them.

[music]

Then are a whole crowd of percussion instruments, but we have time to examine only the most common.  Let us start with the kettledrums or the timpani.

[music]

The bass drum and cymbals.

[music]

The tambourine, and the triangle.

[music]

The familiar side drum and the Chinese block.

[music]

The xylophone with its wooden bars.

[music]

The castanets, and the gong.

[music]

And finally, the sinisterly named whip.

[music]

Having taken the orchestra to pieces we must put it together again.  So here is a fugue, with the instruments coming in one after another – starting as begun with the piccolo and working right through to the percussion.  At the end you will hear the grand tune on the brass instruments.

Resources

Instruments of the orchestra clip
Purcell – Rondeau from Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra