Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was originally an educational piece meant to teach children about all of the different instruments in the orchestra. Not only does it have the potential to teach people of all ages the difference between a bassoon and an oboe, but the piece is also a very complex “theme and variations. There are no less than thirteen variations of the theme, from the Rondeau in Henry Purcell’s music to “Abdelazer,” in addition to the original statement and the culmination of all of the variations at the end. The original statement of the melody features the different families of the orchestra; first everyone, and then woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion.
From there it moves on to the thirteen themes that exhibit each instrument individually, in score order. Each theme displays key features characteristic to each instrument. Any accompaniment in the variations serves to showcase that particular instrument and introduce chords that propel the piece forward.
The woodwind section begins in the Presto at Variation A; the flute is light and flits easily around the notes with quick scales and arpeggios. At Variation B, Lento, the oboe demonstrates its ability to make very long, sustain, and flowing lines. The clarinets in the Moderato of Variation C exhibit their vast range, the ability to trill easily, and a large dynamic range. The “clown” of the orchestra, the bassoon manifests not only this characterization, in the Allegro alla marcia Variation D, but also a proficiency at making large leaps, and variations in character, from bouncy and clown-like, to luscious, full, and flowing.
The string sections follow the bassoons; violins at Variation E, Brillante: alla polacca; violas at Variation F, and cellos at Variation G, Meno mosso; double basses at Variation H, Cominciando lento ma poco a poco accel. al Allegro; and harp at Variation I, Maestoso. The string section as a whole shows a very wide range and complete continuity in the ability to sound like one instrument although there are many playing. The harp demonstrates several abilities unique to harp, from glissandi, to extended chords, in addition to a few shared with piano: rolled, cracked, and strait chords, and the possibility of playing many strings and two lines of music at once.
In the brass section comes french horns at Variation J, L’istesso tempo; trumpets at Variation K, Vivace; and trombones and bass tuba at Variation L, Allegro pomposo. The french horns demonstrate an extensive note and dynamic range and the ease and beauty in creating a fanfare. For trumpets, the impressive skill they demonstrate is an incredibly fast double tongue that cannot be matched in speed by nearly any other instrument. Trombones and bass tuba are grouped together and have an underlying counterpoint from the woodwinds and strings. The trombones slide a little bit and the tuba shows how low it can go, but these instruments are less well represented in their abilities.
The percussion section must display twelve instruments, all in Variation M, Moderato, which means that each has less time to show its strengths. Britten, however, works to the advantage that many percussion instruments are not pitched and have a distinctive sound that can be layered on top of each other. The timpani begins by exhibiting a large full sound that can change pitch, unlike the bass drum which cannot, but can create a thunder-like aura. With the bass drum is the cymbal that can crash in different styles that ring at different volumes and for changing lengths of time. The tambourine and triangle are in the same pitch range and can compliment each other and add different styles to pieces. Interspersed among the percussion instruments is a motif played by the orchestra at different pitches, volumes, and instrumentations. Since many percussion instruments are unpitched, the motif propels the percussion variation, providing chords and context in order to better exhibit the instruments. The next ones are demonstrated as such; the orchestra swells so that the snare drum, wood blocks, and later the whip may show their volume and accenting capabilities in addition to their characteristic sounds. The xylophone is the first pitched instrument after the timpani, so it joins along in the orchestra melody, showing how it can accompany other instruments or create its own melody. After the castanets, gong and tamtam are exhibited, the percussion section joins all together with the orchestral motif before the piece moves on to the final section.
In the fugue at the end of the piece, each instrument once again plays its own variation of the melody, each starting at a different time until all are playing at once and the french horns join with the original melody. Each instrument’s variation fits in with the others around it; they compliment each other and work together to create a complex series of lines. Although each variation is interesting in and of itself, when the pieces come together into a whole, the true wonder of the piece is shown because each instrument has its own interesting, characteristic part to play that contributes to the whole. When the horns come in with the original melody, it shows the journey the piece takes listeners on from beginning to end, through many changes to the melody, and back to the beginning. The last iteration of the theme reveals every step of the journey taken in the creation of the piece and is therefore extremely powerful.