A Birthday Tribute to Benjamin Britten: The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten
Ordinarily when I write program notes, I focus on a single piece.

Since this year marks Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday, it seems appropriate to widen the focus and look at The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra within the context of Britten’s life at the time he composed it.

His opera Peter Grimes becomes a very important part of the story.

Benjamin Britten started composing at the age of 5. When he was 11 he met Frank Bridge at the Norwich Music Festival and became his pupil. Beside excellent technical skill, he learned about musical developments in Europe.

When he began studying composition with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music in 1930, he found the prevalent English nationalist music unsatisfying.

His European orientation made it difficult for him to get performances of his earliest works. For that reason, along with his sexual orientation and unpopular political views, he always felt like an outsider even after he became internationally successful.
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Critical reception

The basic outlines of criticism of Britten’s music were more or less set before he reached his 30th birthday.

Critical reception has always been divided. Because of his appreciation for Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg, and Stravinsky, he seemed too far out for traditionalists.

Because audiences liked his music much more than that of either the 12-tone composers or Bartok, his music somehow seemed too “provincial” for critics who wanted the British to develop more “advanced” tastes.

Everyone recognized that he composed quickly and developed great craftsmanship. That made it easy for critics who wanted to disparage him to dismiss his music as “clever.” Occasional comparisons between Britten and Saint-Saens or Shostakovich were not intended as compliments.

As a younger composer, he disdained the influence of Sibelius on British music and turned against such elders as Ralph Vaughan Williams. After World War II, he began to supplant Vaughn Williams as the top British composer.

A critical turf war broke out, sort of like the rivalry between the Chicago Cubs and White Sox: no one could like either composer without being pressured to disparage the other.

The War Requiem of 1962 was perhaps Britten’s greatest critical success. He wrote some wonderful music afterward, but critics lost interest in it. They began to complain that his music was “thin.”

A new critical food fight broke out at the end of Britten’s life, with Michael Tippet emerging as the eventual victor.

Now that all the critical dust has settled and the reviews forgotten by most of the public, Britten has emerged, along with Elgar and Vaughan Williams, as a credible candidate for the greatest British composer of the 20th century.
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Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes

The Scallop (2003) Aldeburgh beach / Maggi Hambling. The edge of the main shell is pierced with the words, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, taken from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

Britten visited the US between 1939 and 1942. Aaron Copland firmly wore the mantle of America’s national composer. As Britten returned to England, he coveted a similar role for himself and set about to earn it.

During that visit, Britten read a study of the works of Suffolk poet George Crabbe and conceived an idea for an opera based on a section of the poem The Borough.

When Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asked him what he was working on, he replied that he was considering an opera, but couldn’t afford to proceed. Koussevitsky immediately decided to offer Britten a commission for the opera.

Despite the wartime conditions that made travel dangerous, he returned to England in 1942. International air travel did not yet exist, so he had to brave an ocean voyage. He composed his Ceremony of Carols and The Hymn to Saint Cecilia en route.

At 28, he was of draft age, but as a confirmed pacifist successfully achieved exemption from military service. In return, he was obligated to perform piano recitals throughout the UK—both in public and in prisons. Nevertheless, the opera, Peter Grimes, occupied much of his time. He finished it in February 1945, just as the war was beginning to wind down.

The opera had to overcome political opposition in order to be performed at all. It wasn’t national politics with objections to his pacifism and lifestyle that proved the obstacle, but politics and rivalries within the Sadler’s Wells Theater. But after the premiere on June 7, 1945, it was clear that Britten had become the leading British composer of his generation.

Despite years of critical condescension, Peter Grimes proved that Britten could produce dramatic and emotionally powerful music. Other operas followed, but it’s in the context of the success of Peter Grimes that Britten composed The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

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The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Children at the symphony

Children at the symphony

Before his visit to the US, Britten’s affinity for children was well known. He had also composed music for numerous films.

In 1944 the Crown Film Unit of the BBC commissioned another, for a music education project, but he didn’t start work on it until December 1945.

Between the time Britten received the commission and the time he started working on it, he completed the opera Peter Grimes, composed his String Quartet no. 2, and wrote the music for the BBC Third Programme radio play The Dark Tower.

In addition to composing all that music, he continued to fulfill his wartime performance obligations as a conscientious objector. After the war ended, they included accompanying Yehudi Menuhin in a series of concerts given in various concentration camps.

Once he started on the film project, he completed it in two weeks. He was just putting the finishing touches on it as Big Ben tolled midnight on the last day of the year.
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The text was written by Eric Crozier, the director of Peter Grimes and librettist for three of Britten’s later operas.

The resulting film featured Malcolm Sargent as conductor and narrator. It was introduced in a theater at Leicester Square on November 29, 1946 and used in British schools for nearly 20 years afterward. The video shows the first five minutes.

Sargent also conducted the concert premiere, with the Liverpool Philharmonic, on October 15, 1946. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra quickly became a concert staple, with or without narration. It probably benefitted from the boost that Britten’s reputation had gained from Peter Grimes.

The orchestra includes all the standard instruments of a modern large orchestra — no unusual wind instruments like saxophones — along with a huge number of percussion instruments: timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, Chinese wood block, castanets, whip, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, and xylophone.

The work is in the form of theme and variations, one Britten used in many other works. The theme comes from incidental music Henry Purcell wrote in 1695 for a play by Aphra Behn: Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge.

Ordinarily in a variation form, the theme gets a simple presentation at the beginning of the piece, and the variations follow. In The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Britten gives it more prominence.

First, the whole orchestra plays it, followed by the woodwinds, brasses, strings (including harp), and, rhythmically anyway, percussion. After all that, the full orchestra plays it again.

The 13 variations proceed in the same order as the separate choirs played the theme, from the top instrument in each choir to the bottom, although the tuba joins the trombones at the bottom of the brass choir.

Once the percussion variation ends, Britten reassembles the orchestra with an elaborate fugue, with the theme first stated by the piccolo. A fugue, of course is based on motivic material rather than thematic material.

The theme becomes all but unrecognizable until the brass and woodwind choirs play it for a grand finale while the strings continue with the fugal material.

And so the middle statements of the theme emphasize what each choir can do. The variations show off what individual instruments can do. The whole point of the fugue is to show how glorious the full orchestra is when all the instruments contribute their special abilities.

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Part 3/ Rob Barnett. Music Web International.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) / Classic Net
Kennedy Center (link no longer work as of Feb. 2016) program notes.
London Chamber Orchestra program notes.

Photo credits:
Portrait of Britten. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons. The picture is more than 20 years later than the music in this post, but no contemporary portraits are public domain.
The Scallop. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Children at the symphony. Some rights reserved by michale.

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