Britten ~ Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945)

Composer Benjamin Britten took melody and harmony from a Baroque era counterpart, Henry Purcell, and perfectly melded it with his own 20th century aesthetic.

Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten

Although nowadays it is performed as a stand-alone concert piece, this work derives its name from the fact that it was originally commissioned for an educational documentary film called Instruments of the Orchestra. It has in fact sometimes been referred to as a “theme and variations on Purcell”.

English composer Benjamin Britten took Purcell’s Baroque-era melody and harmony, morphed it through his own 20th century aesthetic, and from there created a massive set of themes and variations that concludes with the magnificent counterpoint and chorale excerpted here.

Note how every instrumental group states the theme in advance of the massive hymn-like conclusion. And the camera work in this video is splendid, with each instrument (or instrumental group) in the frame at exactly the right moment.

In this clip, Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic.

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