The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: A guide to Britten's masterpiece and it's best recordings
Did you know Britten's Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was initially composed for a film? Daniel Jaffé enjoys instrumental inspiration from piccolo to double bass as he compares the best versions of Britten’s didactic masterpiece
Britten composed The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra late in 1945, fresh from the phenomenal success of his first full-scale opera Peter Grimes.
Why did Britten compose The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra?
Yet, significantly, he was first approached to compose his didactic masterpiece well before rehearsals for Grimes had begun. Not yet a celebrated opera composer, Britten was respected for his music for documentaries, having in the 1930s scored approaching 30 such films, including his legendary collaboration with WH Auden, Night Mail (1936). What became Young Person’s Guide was originally written for a 20-minute film featuring Malcolm Sargent and the LSO; this was to be Britten’s last and most celebrated film score.
Basil Wright, a former colleague and now producer-in-charge at Crown Film Unit – formerly the GPO Film Unit responsible for Night Mail – had first contacted Britten about the LSO film late in 1944. Following RA Butler’s 1944 Education Act, by which music for the first time became part of the British school curriculum, the Crown Film Unit was planning a series of educational films including one on the instruments of the orchestra, a project for which Britten appeared ideal.
Notwithstanding his other commitments, Britten accepted, and planning for the film proceeded. A typescript scenario dated 24 February 1945, presumably written in collaboration with Sargent and Wright, includes what was to prove the score’s masterstroke: after all the instruments have been presented according to their families – woodwind and brass, percussion and strings (albeit, the order ultimately changed in Britten’s final composition) – there was to be a ‘fugue-form bringing in all the instruments of the Orchestra section by section until the whole Orchestra is playing the grand climax’.
Britten, having seen Grimes to its premiere, then composed his song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and his Second String Quartet before finally tackling the film score in earnest in December 1945. For the opening theme played by full orchestra he used a theme from Purcell’s Abdelazer, incidental music written in 1695 for a play by Aphra Behn.
A guide to The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Britten’s orchestration of this, resplendent and rather pompous sounding, is quite uncharacteristic of his usually much more spare style of orchestration, and was undoubtedly calculated to please Sargent, who often conducted similarly plush re-orchestrations of Handel.
Then follows a variation from each instrument, starting with flutes and piccolo and working downwards to the bass instruments. Britten’s previous film experience is evident in his appreciation of the visual aspect of each instrument being played, as well as his deft ability to suggest its character in its respective variation.
The work’s greatest triumph, though, is the fugue, starting with solo piccolo followed by every instrument in their order of appearance in the foregoing variations, all finally and triumphantly capped by the brass playing Purcell’s original theme in counterpoint with Britten’s fugue – like a great ship ploughing through a billowing sea.
Even as he was composing, Britten wrote to his publisher: ‘I’m just clearing up my “chores” [including] the Purcell variations for the Orchestra film. I’m hoping that the latter may be useful for the ordinary orchestra repertoire.’ So it proved. Indeed, the music was quickly recognised by both British and foreign critics as strong enough to stand on its own merits.
Yet the published score states the work ‘should be performed with the inserted commentary, spoken by the conductor’ – an instruction often disregarded. Partly this is down to practicality (it’s not easy for the conductor to narrate while directing a continuous piece of music), and partly this is due to the rather stilted commentary that was published, written by one of Britten’s librettists, Eric Crozier.
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It’s a pity that Crozier’s text replaced the informative commentary spoken in the film by Sargent, as written by Montagu Slater almost certainly with input from Britten and Sargent himself, and possibly the film’s director Muir Matheson. As it is, Crozier’s commentary is lumbered with some rather dated descriptions (woodwind are ‘superior varieties of the penny-whistle’), is prone to interventionist characterisation of what we are about to hear (double basses have ‘heavy, grumbling voices’) and is inconsistent in its level of information. Even when tweaked, Crozier’s text is something of a stumbling block, though occasionally a narrator’s charisma or professional know-how can minimise or even transcend its shortcomings, as we shall see over the page.
The best recordings of Britten's Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Benjamin Britten (conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra
Decca 483 0392 (1963)
Since its first release, Britten’s recording has held a firm place in the affections of both critics and aficionados, and with good reason. Britten and the London Symphony Orchestra had recently made their landmark and highly successful premiere recording of the War Requiem, released to superlative reviews and with phenomenal sales just as they reunited at London’s Kingsway Hall on 27 May 1963 to make this recording of Young Person’s Guide.
The camaraderie of these sessions is infectious: the LSO players are not only on top of their game, but they also communicate a sense of unbuttoned exuberance and joy in their playing, no doubt inspired both by Britten’s tactful yet clear direction and by performing such a light-spirited work (quite a contrast to the bleak and ferocious War Requiem) in which individual players can shine.
In the opening for full orchestra, where so many recordings follow the direction maestoso e largamente (‘majestically and broadly’) all too literally, Britten takes the composer’s prerogative of disregarding his own instruction and launches with a relatively brisk tempo. Any risk of pomposity is deflated, aided by perky and characterful woodwind, boldly confident brass (they know how good they are!), and the vigorous string playing (that moment often sounding stodgy in so many other performances).
Individual variations are all characterful, though among the most striking are the oboes, who sing in a manner unmatched by any other recording, recalling the plangency of David Hemmings, the young treble in Britten’s 1950s opera recordings. There is fine teamwork throughout, with a real sense that players are listening and responding to each other: full marks for the tuba player’s deadpan humour, whether in the instrument’s ever-so-decisive plodding behind the trombones in their variation (where Sargent, by contrast, can’t resist going for broad humour), or the squat-sounding footsteps which accompany the clarinets’ agile athletics.
The performance – done without the narration – is capped by a fleet and virtuosic fugue, yet with a light touch. Here, as in the earlier variations, one senses an orchestra on peak form and on its toes, yet with a real sense of fun that spills over into near riot when the percussion enters the fray, the orchestra billowing and surging as the brass make their tremendous entry with Purcell’s theme.
Malcolm Sargent (conductor/narrator)
Tony Palmer TPCD-DVD 196
Once attuned to Sargent’s condescending manner and his musicians’ generally dour expressions, the 1946 film’s masterful symbiosis between music, visuals and spoken word is compelling. Sargent’s commentary is mostly to the point, informative (for instance, about the differences between oboes and clarinets), and knows when to allow the visuals and the music to tell their own story. The slightly unconventional orchestral layout allows helpful close-ups, and the viewer is guided through the orchestra sections by well-planned camera work.
John Lanchbery (conductor)
Dame Edna Everage – ever so slightly mischievous yet fully engaged and enthusiastic – is an effortlessly entertaining and informative compère in this 1997 recording. She uses Crozier’s script with some judicious editing (‘sad’ instead of ‘plaintive’), occasionally throws in a ‘gorgeous’ (most appropriately describing the cellos’ tone here), and the crash and tumble by cymbals and bass drum elicits a surprised ‘Oh!’. The Melbourne orchestra plays superbly under John Lanchbery (though the whip is a bit of a damp squib), with the fugue making a superb finish.
Richard Hickox (conductor)
Chandos CHAN 10784X
If just short of perfection (the cello variation is a touch effortful, and there’s a muffed tambourine flourish), Richard Hickox’s narrator-free account with the Bournemouth Symphony in 1993 is unmatched for sheer charm and character. Like Britten, he sets off at a purposeful pace, the theme sounding proud and good-natured. In the following variations, Hickox finds more comedy than does even Britten – check out the balletic double basses, with whooping flutes and tambourines their enthusiastic cheerleaders. Excellently recorded, too.
And one to avoid…
Plenty of versions – often with narrations by adults trying to ‘get down with the kids’ – have had a short shelf life. One dud which hasn’t, though, presumably owes its longevity to the name of André Previn, a great musician who sounds jaded and bored when narrating his 1973 recording with the LSO. He does a grave disservice to anyone hoping to introduce their children to the wonders of the symphony orchestra.