Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

This is the final piece on the May 22 program. Lee Cullum will narrate the work.

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Benjamin Britten
Born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, England
Died December 4, 1976 in Aldeburgh, England

Benjamin Britten, a prolific British composer, conductor, and pianist, began his musical career at an early age. At only fourteen, he composed his Quatre Chansons françaises for soprano and orchestra, garnering him much acclaim. Britten’s potential for musical brilliance was later recognized as he eventually came to compose one of the most beloved works in all of symphonic literature, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
Britten was a gifted adolescent who enjoyed exploring the many facets of classical music. He eventually enrolled in the Royal College of Music where he received superb training and also developed into a first-rate pianist. His disappointment with the traditional methods of instruction, however, caused him to leave without completing his musical education. Britten decided to depart from England as a conscientious objector to the political turmoil resulting from World War II. After traveling between the United States and England for several years, he ultimately decided to return in order to focus on his music. Britten’s efforts finally came to fruition with the composition of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945. This work became a landmark in the history of English opera, propelling him to the forefront of British composers during his time.
In the same year as the premiere of Peter Grimes, the British Ministry of Education asked Britten to compose a piece that was to be featured in a film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra, designed to educate students about instruments that are common to a modern symphony orchestra. It was to feature a narration written by Eric Crozier, a British theatrical director and Opera librettist who later co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival with him. Britten had always wanted to extend his passion for music with young people. Consequently, he viewed this offer as an opportunity. He began to compose the piece during the following year, basing it on Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s 1965 tragedy Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge. This is the reason that The Young Person’s Guide is often referred to by its alternate title, Variations and a Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell. The alternate title is used when no narration is included, since the score functions as an independent musical composition.
The Young Person’s Guide opens boldly with full orchestra playing the original Purcell theme. Britten provides each full section of the orchestra with an individual variation, followed by shorter variations for each specific instrument. He then reunites the fragmented orchestra, concluding with a grand and triumphant finale.
Benjamin Britten believed that music was the key to understanding and communication, an embodiment of the entire spectrum of human emotion. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra exemplifies Britten’s appreciation and love for every instrument in the orchestra. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the piece is that it provides younger audiences with an understanding of how symphonic music comes together. This, however, does not detract from the value it brings to older audiences as well. The Young Person’s Guide is an enduring musical work that has been enjoyed by all. Tonight’s performance features a new narration written by Dr. Laurie Shulman.
Britten scored The Young Person’s Guide for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat and A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, Tuba, percussion (timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, castanets, tam-tam and whip), harp and strings.
-Saad Daniari, viola

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