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The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

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The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34, is a 1945 musical composition by Benjamin Britten with a subtitle Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. It was based on the second movement, "Rondeau", of the Abdelazer suite. It was originally commissioned for the British educational documentary film called Instruments of the Orchestra released on 29 November 1946, directed by Muir Mathieson and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent;[1] Sargent also conducted the concert première on 15 October 1946 with the Liverpool Philharmonic in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England.


The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is scored for symphony orchestra:


The work is based on the Rondeau from Henry Purcell's incidental music to Aphra Behn's Abdelazer,[2] 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 strings, then the brass, and finally by the percussion. Each variation then features a particular instrument in-depth, generally moving through each family from the higher-pitched instruments to the lower-pitched (the order of the families is slightly different from the introduction). For example, the first variation features the piccolo and flutes; each member of the woodwind family then gets a variation, ending with the bassoon. The woodwinds are followed by the strings, brass, and finally the percussion.

After the whole orchestra has been taken apart 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 re-introduced (with a strike on the tamtam) with Purcell's original melody.[3]

External audio
Performed by Benjamin Britten and the London Symphony Orchestra
audio icon Theme
audio icon Variation A
audio icon Variation B
audio icon Variation C
audio icon Variation D
audio icon Variation E
audio icon Variation F
audio icon Variation G
audio icon Variation H
audio icon Variation I
audio icon Variation J
audio icon Variation K
audio icon Variation L
audio icon Variation M
audio icon Fugue

The sections of the piece and instruments introduced by the variations are as follows.

Allegro maestoso e largamente
Tutti (D minor), woodwinds (F major), brass (E♭ major), strings (G minor), then percussion (written in A major)
Variation A
Flutes and piccolo
Variation B
Variation C
Variation D
Allegro alla marcia
Variation E
Brillante: alla polacca
Variation F
Meno mosso
Variation G
Variation H
Cominciando lento ma poco a poco accel. al Allegro
Double basses
Variation I
Variation J
L'istesso tempo
Variation K
Variation L
Allegro pomposo
Trombones and tuba
Variation M
Percussion (timpani; bass drum and cymbals; tambourine and triangle; snare drum and woodblock; xylophone; castanets and tam-tam; whip; percussion tutti)
Allegro molto


The narration for the documentary film was written by Eric Crozier, the producer of the first production of Britten's opera Peter Grimes, and is sometimes spoken by the conductor or a separate speaker during performance of the piece. The composer also arranged a version without narration. The one without narration is more often recorded. The commentary often differs among recordings.

A new narration was written by Simon Butteriss for the Aldeburgh Festival and broadcast live by CBBC presenter Johny Pitts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the Britten 100 celebrations in 2013.

Comedian and author John Hodgman wrote a new narration of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra in 2015 for a series of performances with the Boston Pops Orchestra.[4][5][6]

Jazz orchestra versions[edit]

Duncan Lamont wrote an equivalent suite of variations (using the same Purcell theme) for jazz orchestra and narrator, The Young Person’s Guide to the Jazz Orchestra.[7] Mike Westbrook's After Smith's Hotel, subtitled The Young Person’s Guide To The Jazz Orchestra, was commissioned by the Snape Maltings Foundation and performed there in October 1983.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Instruments of the Orchestra", British Film Institute, accessed 24 May 2013
  2. ^ "Programme Notes". London Chamber Orchestra. 18 April 2013. Archived from the original on 4 August 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  3. ^ "Programme Notes". London Chamber Orchestra. 20 March 2013. Archived from the original on 4 August 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  4. ^ "John Hodgman in the Young Person's Guide: Boston Pops: WCRB: WGBH".
  5. ^ Boston Pops (14 May 2015). "Excerpts from John Hodgman's Debut Narration with Boston Pops". Archived from the original on 21 December 2021 – via YouTube.
  6. ^ "Excerpts from John Hodgman's debut narration with Boston Pops".
  7. ^ Radio Times Issue 2887, 10th March 1979
  8. ^ Radio Times Issue 3183, 10th November 1984

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]