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A Young Persons Guide To The Orchestra With Narrative Essay

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

Britten, Scheide Concert January 2013

In Britten (Haus, t £9.99) David Matthews observes that his reputation, unlike that of many composers, has suffered no decline since his death in 1976. Indeed, those who dislike the composer talk about “the Britten industry”. Even Paul Kildea, in Britten: a Life in the 20th Century (Allen Lane, t £26) refers somewhat despairingly to “the sheer scale of the documentation project in place” – notably at the Britten-Pears Foundation, which boasts “the most complete composer archive in the world”. For anyone who wants to know what the fuss is all about, Matthews’s little book, first published in 2003 and now reissued in a “centenary edition”, is a good place to start. It occasionally seems rather old fashioned (Britten’s mother “very likely” made him homosexual) and it lacks the quirkiness of John Bridcut’s entertaining but authoritative Pocket Guide to Britten (2010), which not only gives a detailed outline of the composer’s life but also a full descriptive catalogue of his works. It nevertheless provides a solid introduction to the man and his music, written by a composer who worked with him.

Neil Powell (Benjamin Britten: a Life for Music, Hutchinson, t £23) and Kildea’s books will suit readers who want rather more, but are daunted by the six meticulously annotated volumes of Britten’s selected letters, which amount to a biography but run to more than 4,500 pages. Both writers make large claims for their subject, which their respective biographies, in their very different ways, wholly justify. For Powell, Britten “was the greatest of English composers – rivalled only by Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar – and one of the most extraordinarily gifted musicians ever to have been born in this country”. Kildea concludes that Britten “produced a body of works and performances that was unrivalled in the 20th century and is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon”.

Britten was a child prodigy who at the age of two was already demanding “Dear pay pano”, imagining, Powell tells us, that “Dear” was his name, “because that’s what people called him”. Photographed at the age of seven or eight, dressed wholly in white apart from a pair of well-polished Mary Janes, he sits at a piano artfully surrounded by scores and looks every inch a little dear – with all that the equivocal phrase suggests. It was not merely a pose, however, for he had already started writing music, and by the age of 14 had 534 compositions to his credit. Lessons with Frank Bridge channelled this extraordinary energy and invention, so that within a year he was writing pieces, such as the fully orchestrated Quatre chansons françaises, that are now frequently performed and recorded.

Kildea suggests that Britten’s trip to America in April 1939 was a necessary step towards musical maturity, but his failure to return when war broke out caused considerable hostility in England. Although he came back in 1942, his declared pacifism and rumoured homosexuality led to sniping. Even the triumphant production of Peter Grimes in 1945, generally greeted as heralding a new era in British opera, caused some knowingly adverse carping about the work’s “extraordinarily emotional unbalance” resulting from its lack of a proper (ie romantic) female lead. His answer was Billy Budd (1951), written with E M Forster, which demonstrated it was possible to dispense with female roles and produce a masterpiece.

Britten already had his own male lead, the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he would have an extremely fruitful but not untroubled personal and professional partnership until his death. Both biographers provide sympathetic but unillusioned accounts of the tensions in this relationship. Pears preferred London to Suffolk and was not good at dealing with his partner's frequent bouts of ill health – many of them brought on or exacerbated by overwork. Britten’s own bad behaviour to both colleagues and friends is also dealt with without ever diminishing his stature.

Although his sexuality was crucial to his work, Britten was never wholly at ease with it. It was further complicated by his attraction to adolescent boys, the firm repression of which led not only to one of his best operas, The Turn of the Screw (1954), but also the 20th century’s most remarkable collection of compositions for children’s voices. Dealing with this contentious area of Britten’s life, both Kildea and Powell remain level-headed, scrupulously avoiding the sensationalism of Humphrey Carpenter’s pioneering but flawed biography of 1992. Kildea’s much-publicised revelation that Britten’s heart was damaged by undiagnosed syphilis finds its proper place in a book teeming with well-researched detail. More interesting is his account of the enormous sums Britten earned.

It seems inevitable that these two fine biographies will be seen as rivals, but they are in fact complementary and sufficiently different in their approach to hold the attention even when read in quick succession. Kildea’s book is admiring but objective, whereas Powell, as an affecting coda makes clear, has a more personal touch. Kildea writes particularly well about individual compositions, relying not on technical language but on vividly impressionistic accounts that make one immediately want to listen to the music again. This is particularly the case when he argues that the Nocturne (1958) is superior to the far more popular Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) or when he champions late works that others have found arid. Powell, who admits that he has no musical training, takes a more literary approach, and is good at relating the vocal pieces to their sources. The author of a Life of George Crabbe (whose “The Borough” was the basis for Peter Grimes), he lives in Suffolk and stresses the importance of Britten’s East Anglian roots, whereas Kildea, who is Australian and lives in Berlin, emphasises the international aspects of Britten’s work. In all sorts of ways Britten was very English – not least his personal reserve and the embarrassing prep-school slang he clung to throughout his life – but he embraced Englishness in his music partly in order to redefine it. His arrangements of folk songs, for example, remain true to their spirit but are revivified with a jagged 20th-century sense of dislocation. The refreshingly dissonant Spring Symphony is a good deal less bucolically carefree than, in Paul Kildea’s words, “a traipse through the sunny Suffolk countryside”.

Given that no biography ever contains enough illustrations, Lucy Walker’s Britten in Pictures(Boydell & Brewer, t £17.99) is especially welcome, supplementing in a larger format the 1978 Pictures from a Life. A fascinating essay by Christopher Grogan analyses the way Britten presented himself in photographs and paintings, and the book also includes pictures of opera sets, costume designs, photographs of manuscripts and – most touchingly – some of the letters Britten and Pears wrote to each other.

Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century

By Paul Kildea

Allen Lane. £30.00

Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music

By Neil Powell

Hutchinson. £20.00

Britten

By David Matthews

Haus Publishing. £9.99

Britten in Pictures

By Lucy Walker

Boydell Press. £19.99

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