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Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra -
One of the most well-known orchestral works written especially for the young listener is English composer Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Based on a theme from Purcell’s Abdelazer (The Moor’s Revenge), it begins and ends with an overview of the whole orchestra, interspersed with demonstrations of the capabilities of each instrument.
It was originally written for a documentary in 1946, entitled ‘The Instruments of the Orchestra’, in which the narrator described the roles and characteristics of each orchestral section with the aid of the variations composed by Britten. Although the composer had no children of his own, due to reasons which are now known, he was fond of them and wrote this piece with them in mind. In fact, the Young Person’s Guide is ‘affectionately inscribed to the children of John and Jean Maud - Humphrey, Pamela, Caroline and Virginia - for their edification and entertainment.’
The Young Person’s Guide was written so that each instrument could be verbally presented. However, Britten also foresaw the possibility that the piece would be performed with no narration, and he made allowances for this in his written score. Nevertheless, the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra remains a piece enjoyed by both young and the young at heart.
We have made a RealAudio rendition of this piece, but due to licensing complications, we are not able to make it available at this moment. We will post the music here once we have permission to do so; in the meantime you may like to use one of the recommended recordings listed at the bottom of this page.
Young Person’s Guide is (usually) accompanied by narration. However, we have transcribed the text here for your reference. Clicking on any section name will take you to more information about that section of the orchestra in the Instruments section. To return to this page, simply use the ‘back’ button on your browser.
The composer has written this piece of music specially to introduce you to the instruments of the orchestra. There are four teams of players; the STRINGS, the WOODWIND, the BRASS, and the PERCUSSION. Each of these four teams uses instruments which have a family likeness. They make roughly the same kind of sound in the same way. The STRINGS are played with a bow or plucked by the fingers. The WOODWIND are blown by the breath. The BRASS are blown too. The PERCUSSION are banged.
First you will hear a Theme by the great English composer, Henry Purcell, played by the whole orchestra and by each one of the four groups of instruments.
The WOODWIND are superior versions of the penny-whistle. They are made of wood.
The first BRASS instruments were trumpets and hunting-horns. These are their modern descendants.
The STRINGS, large and small, are scraped with a bow or plucked with the fingers. Their cousin the Harp is always plucked.
The PERCUSSION group includes drums, gongs, tambourines and anything else you hit. When you have heard them, the whole orchestra will play the melody again.
Theme F (Full Orchestra)
Now let us hear each instrument play a variation of its own. The highest of the Woodwind theme is the clear, sweet voice of the FLUTE, with its shrill little brother, the PICCOLO.
OBOES have a gentle, plaintive quality, but they can be forceful enough when the composer wants them to.
CLARINETS are very agile. They make a beautifully smooth, mellow sound.
BASSOONS are the largest of the Woodwind team, so they have the deepest voices.
The highest voices in the String family are the VIOLINS. They play in two groups - Firsts and Seconds.
VIOLAS are a bit larger than Violins, and so are deeper in tone.
CELLOS sing with splendid richness and warmth. Listen to this fine sound!
The DOUBLEBASSES are the grandfathers of the String family, with heavy grumbling voices.
The HARP has forty-seven strings, and seven foot-pedals to alter the pitch of its strings.
The Brass family begins with the HORNS. These are made from brass tubing coiled in a circle.
I expect you all know the sound of TRUMPETS.
The TROMBONES have heavy brassy voices. The BRASS TUBA is heavier still.
There is an enormous number of PERCUSSION instruments. We can't play them all, but here are the most familiar ones. First the KETTLE DRUMS - often called TIMPANI.
We have taken the whole Orchestra to pieces. Now let us put it together as a Fugue. The instruments come in one after another, in the same order as before - beginning with the Piccolo. At the end, the Brass will play Henry Purcell's fine melody, while the others go on playing Benjamin Britten's Fugue.
Britten: Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
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