The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
Benjamin Britten, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, Op. 34
Two days ago, I listened to a rondeau from Purcell's opera Abdelazar, the theme of which became the basis, two-and-a-half centuries later, for Benjamin Britten's 1945 composition The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, Op. 34. Britten was commissioned to write this by the British Ministry of Education, for an educational film about the orchestra. Purcell's stately theme is first introduced by the entire orchestra, then the different sections—woodwinds, strings, horns, percussion—all briefly restate the theme. After that, Britten embarks on thirteen variations, each featuring different instruments—harp, to trumpets, to oboes. The piece ends with a glorious full-orchestra fugue.
In the variations, Purcell's theme sounds modern, Baroque, Romantic, Classical—Britten takes it on a journey through all of the musical ages that followed Purcell's.
Today I listened to Paavo Järvi conduct the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra play Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (from the 2006 album Britten - Elgar):
I first heard this piece in a college introduction to the humanities course at Ricks College in 1976. Ruth Barrus, the professor, was so inspiring, her lectures so captivating, that her lecture halls were always filled to capacity, and students would run to get to her class on time, not to be late. I was one of them. Two of the treasured volumes of my personal library are the textbooks from that course: The Search for Personal Freedom, vols. 1 and 2. Those textbooks made learning, and, in particular, learning about the arts, a compelling journey, one that would engage us for a lifetime. Mrs. Barrett and those books unlocked doors for me that never closed again.
The photograph, above, is of Bear Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska (Credit: NPS; used courtesy of the National Park Service). This is the seventeenth of twenty photos of National Parks that I will feature in this blog to honor the centenary of the National Park Service.