BrittenVariations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Opus 34

EDWARD BENJAMIN BRITTEN

BORN: November 22, 1913. Lowestoft, Suffolk, England

DIED: December 4, 1976. Aldeburgh, Suffolk

COMPOSED/PREMIERE: 1946 for a film, Instruments of the Orchestra, produced by Crown Film Unit and first shown at the Empire Theatre, London, on November 29, 1946. The concert version had already been introduced on October 15 by the Liverpool Philharmonic under Malcolm Sargent, the same musicians who made the soundtrack for the film

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, Chinese block, xylophone, castanets, tam-tam, whip, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 17 mins

Benjamin Britten wrote this music for a documentary film, Instruments of the Orchestra, produced in 1946. The work can be done with or without its explanatory text (with text it is commonly known as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; without, it's titled Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell). Joyous and clever thing that it is, the work is very much worth taking out of the classroom and playing for its sheer musical pleasure.

Britten chose a theme by the composer he loved and knew best among his English predecessors. The swaggering tune comes from Henry Purcell’s music for a revival in 1695 of the tragedy Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge. Britten plays it first with full orchestra, introduces the orchestral families one at a time (woodwind, brass, strings, percussion), then gives it to us for full orchestra once more.

Then the variations proper begin, each family broken down into its component parts. Britten begins with the woodwinds (flutes and piccolo, oboes, clarinets, bassoons). The horns enter, dreamily and quietly. This is a bridge to Britten’s next presentation of the strings (in descending order), followed by the brass and then the percussion.

Britten wanted to write a short piece, and so he presents each instrument in just one characteristic pose. But he manages to include much that is fresh. We hear the first bassoon as an ecstatic operatic tenor, the double basses singing as well as grumbling, and the horns as magic creators of poetic atmosphere. And the virtuosic demonstration of the possibilities of the percussion section, delightful today, would have caused some surprises when the piece was new.

Now that the orchestra has been taken to pieces, it wants to be put together again. Britten does this through a fugue, a musical form in which themes are introduced one after the other by various instrumental voices and then combined. Britten starts a high-speed fugue in which he reintroduces the instruments in the order in which we heard them before. To cap it, Purcell’s original tune rides in majestic brass chords across the busy scurry of Britten’s fugue.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(September 2019)