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The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Background Information

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The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34, is a musical composition by Benjamin Britten in 1946 with a subtitle "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell". It was originally commissioned for an educational documentary film called The 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 one of the three popularly used scores in children's music education, together with Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

This work, in 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 work is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat and A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, castanets, tamtam and whip), harp and strings.


The work is based on the Rondeau from Abdelazar, written by Henry Purcell, and is structured, in accordance with the plan of the original documentary film, as a way of showing 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, and generally moving through each family from high to low. 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 Purcell’s original melody while the remainder continue the fugue theme until the piece finally comes to an end after building up to a fortissimo finish.

The sections of the piece and instruments introduced by the variations are as follows.

Theme: Allegro maestoso e largamente
Tutti, Woodwinds, Brass, Strings, then Percussion
Variation A: Presto
Piccolo and Flute
Variation B: Lento
Variation C: Moderato
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: Maestoso
Variation J: L'istesso tempo
Variation K: Vivace
Variation L: Allegro pomposo
Trombones and tuba
Variation M: Moderato
Percussion (Timpani; Bass Drum & Cymbals; Tambourine & Triangle; Snare Drum & Wood Block; Xylophone; Castanets & Gong; Whip; Percussion Tutti)
Fugue: Allegro molto


The narration for the documentary film was written by Britten's friend Eric Crozier, 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.

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