The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra 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 an educational documentary film called Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Mathieson and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent.
The work is one of the best-known pieces by the composer, and is often associated with two other works in the context of children's music education: Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
This work, in the composer's own words, "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 to the Orchestra is scored for symphony orchestra:
- Woodwinds: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat and A and 2 bassoons
- Brass: 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones (2 tenors and 1 bass) and bass tuba
- Percussion: timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, cowbell, xylophone, castanets, tamtam, and whip
- Strings: harp, first and second violins, violas, cellos and double basses
The work is based on the Rondeau from Henry Purcell's incidental music to Aphra Behn's Abdelazer, 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 brass, then the strings, and finally by the percussion. Each variation then features a particular instrument in depth, generally moving through each family from high to low (the order of the families is slightly different from the introduction). So, for example, the first variation features the piccolo and flutes; each member of the woodwind family then gets a variation, ending with the bassoon; and so on, through the strings, brass, and finally the percussion.
After the whole orchestra has been effectively taken to pieces 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.
The sections of the piece and instruments introduced by the variations are as follows.
- Allegro maestoso e largamente
- Tutti, woodwinds, brass, strings, then percussion
- Variation A
- Piccolo and flute
- 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 bass tuba
- Variation M
- Percussion (timpani; bass drum & cymbals; tambourine & triangle; snare drum & wood block; xylophone; castanets & tamtam; 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 alters between 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.