Saturday, 12 July 2014


“The sound of the orchestra is one of the most magnificent musical sounds that has ever existed.” - Chick Corea

For Music Saturday, a favourite of mine, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”, which was composed by Benjamin Britten in 1945 (completed on New Year’s Eve 1945) with a subtitle Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. It 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 Sir Malcolm Sargent. It was first performed in public in late 1946. In this 1955 recording, Benjamin Britten’s lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears, narrates. Mono recording, clearly transcribed from an LP record, it still shines - both in performance and historical importance.

The work is based on the Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s incidental music to Aphra Behn’s “Abdelazer”, and is structured, in accordance with the plan of the original documentary film, as a way of showing off the tone colours and capacities of the various sections of the orchestra. In the introduction, the theme is initially played by the entire orchestra, then by each major family of instruments of the orchestra: First the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, and finally by the percussion.

Each variation then features a particular instrument in depth, in the same family order, and generally moving through each family from high to low. So, for example, the first variation features the piccolo and flutes; each member of the woodwind family then gets a variation, ending with the bassoon; and so on, through the strings, brass, and finally the percussion.

After the whole orchestra has been effectively taken to pieces in this way, it is reassembled using an original fugue, which starts with the piccolo, followed by all the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion in turn. Once everyone has entered, the brass are reintroduced (with a strike on the gong) with Purcell’s original melody.

Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Igor Markevitch, narrated by Sir Peter Pears (1955).

1 comment:

  1. of the great orchestras.
    Do you know me ? Who on earth would choose this ?