Thursday, August 19, 2010

Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten, Composer (1913 - 1976)
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Listening to Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra completed our trifecta of children's music education pieces, which also included Saint-Saens' The Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Written in 1946 for an educational documentary film called The Instruments of the Orchestra, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is one of Britten's best known works.   The subtitle of the piece is "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell" in which we hear the melody of Rondeau from Abdelazar in a way that shows off the tone colors 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, in the same family order, generally moving through each family from high to low.  After the entire orchestra has been heard by sections, it is put back together using the original fugue.  Once everyone has entered (Piccolo, then woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion), the brass are re-introduced with Purcell's original melody while the remainder continue the fugue theme until the piece finally comes to a fortissimo finish.

In short, the structure looks like this:
13 Variations

While most of our music listening is done en route, I found this piece less conducive to the starts and stops of our daily life.  At the end of our week, I finally brought the CD in the house and made the kids sit on the sofa (no touching) to listen to it one final time.

Interestingly, this work, in the composer's words, "is affectionately inscribed to the children of John and Jean Maud:  Humphrey, Pamela, Caroline and Virginia, for their edification and entertainment."  "A boy and three girls," I thought.  "Just like me."  I wonder if Humphrey and Pamela had a hard time keeping their hands to themselves, too?

Kid Critique:

SAMUEL:  I like the trumpets because they carry out the melody.
ANNA:  I like the double bass section because it sounds happy - like what my life would be like without Samuel.
ARIELLE:  I like the trombones because they sound like the King and Queen.  I also like the xylophone because it sounds graceful, like little drops of rain.  I like the end with the whole orchestra because it sounds like something happy and exciting is going to happen.  The end sounds like a King and Queen entering and that they finally made it to that place!
ELLA:  I like the violas the best because it sounds calm like in Swan Lake.

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