Britten The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell Program Notes
Not too long after returning from Lenox, Massachusetts, where he’d workshopped his new opera Peter Grimes with the students at Tanglewood (and their young conductor, Leonard Bernstein), English composer Benjamin Britten was brought into another education project. A new film, The Instruments of the Orchestra, was to be produced for projecting at school assemblies, and featured the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Malcolm Sargent conducting and speaking the narration to camera. (In live performance, narration is best left to experts, and it is with great joy we welcome Charlotte Blake Alston to narrate this performance!) Britten’s friend and collaborator Eric Crozier wrote the narration. (Crozier also wrote the libretto to Albert Herring, produced the first British production of Peter Grimes, and was a co-founder of the Aldeburgh Festival). As a musical subject for the introduction and thirteen variations, Britten chose a theme by an earlier English composer, Henry Purcell (1659-95). Today, Purcell’s most famous work is his opera Dido & Aeneas (first performed 1689), but this melody comes from incidental music to the tragic English play Abdelazer. After the orchestra’s families and instruments have been introduced in turn, with characteristic and inventive variations, the piece’s largest section, a lively fugue, begins. Each of the instruments enter in the same order as before, and once they’re all playing together, Purcell’s grand theme returns to end the piece.