The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

This article is about the composition by Benjamin Britten. For the television series, see Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

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.[1]

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".[2]


The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is scored for symphony orchestra:


The work is based on the Rondeau from Henry Purcell's incidental music to Aphra Behn's Abdelazer,[3] 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.[4]

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.


  1. "Instruments of the Orchestra", British Film Institute, accessed 24 May 2013
  2. "Essential Britten: A Pocket Guide for the Britten Centenary", John Bridcut, accessed 14 January 2014
  3. "Programme Notes". London Chamber Orchestra. 18 April 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  4. "Programme Notes". London Chamber Orchestra. 20 March 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2013.

External links

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