Curating Music History: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Britten)

This piece is the staple of all introduction to music courses, often it is paired in children’s concerts with the famous Peter and the Wolf by Prokfiev ((or the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens).

In 1945, Britten was commissioned to composed a piece for a documentary (Instruments of the Orchestra), this “Young Person’s Guide” was the result of that commission. It is a series of variations based upon the Rondeau of Purcell’s incidental music for Abdelazer (you can hear the original in the video below at 3:26, if I’ve done the embed right it should start in the right place!).

The beginning begins with the entire orchestra playing, which is then broken down into the various sections and instruments of the modern symphonic orchestra. Keep in mind that the modern symphonic orchestra of the 20th and 21st century is an evolved organisation that does not closely resemble the ensembles of the original Purcell work!

It is a piece that is best done with a narration, to help introduce each part of the orchestral machine. After all the intstruments have been properly introduced, the whole symphonic orchestra gathers again to complete the piece with a fully voiced fugue.


The Performers

This particular performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra directed by Igor Markevitch was the first recording of this piece. It is a huge testimony to the performance that the recording lives on as one of the best recordings of the work. The narration is done by the tenor Sir Peter Pears, who was the lifelong “companion” of Benjamin Britten. The idea of two men being in a relationship was not a thing that was socially acceptable in the years after World War 2, even if (or especially if) they were leaders in their fields of performance and composition.


Previous Curating Music History posts

[‘Sonata in d minor for violin and continuo” (Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre)](

[‘Sonata duodecima’ for Violin and Continuo(Isabella Leonarda)](

[Chaconne from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Lully)](

[Alla Danza Tedesca from Beethoven String Quartet Op.130](

[6 Elizabethan Songs: Argento](

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