Composed by

Benjamin Britten (Nov 1913 - Dec 1976) in 1945

Duration

Approx. 17 mins

Instrumentation

Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, temple blocks, xylophones, castanets, tam-tam, whip & strings

This composition was written at the request of the British Ministry of Education for use in the short educational film “Instruments of the Orchestra”, which introduced musical instruments to children in 1946. It was later turned into a pure music work by the composer himself, Benjamin Britten. The piece showcases a grand, stately theme based on Henry Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelazar (1695). Benjamin Britten wrote this piece specifically for students to listen, learn, and be inspired to play.

The piece was scored for individual sections at a time. It opens with a full orchestra before introducing each of the instruments with more details, giving each instrument its unique variations that highlight its characteristics and demonstrate its common uses in the orchestra. 

It begins with the highest-pitched instruments in the family (for example, piccolo and flutes in the woodwinds) and proceeds to the lowest (bassoon) while mixing various energies and tempo to highlight the varied instrumental timbres. For the percussion section, special prominence is given to xylophone and timpani, both of which produce particular pitches (pitched percussion).

To conclude the work, Britten combines all the sections of the orchestra with his own lively and brisk fugue (a combination of more than one melody at a time), which in itself is a variation of Purcell’s theme. The piccolo and the flutes open, and all the groups of instruments enter in an order in which they were first heard in the variations, stating new melodies as overlapping layers of music emerge. This allows listeners to hear the contrasting voices of the instruments. It introduces musical techniques from earlier periods, where a melody passes between instruments while other melodic ideas play in the background. With all the instruments playing together, the piece comes to a grand climax when the brass sounds the original Purcell’s theme, and builds up to a fortissimo finish.

Benjamin Britten​

  1. Approached by the Malaysian government to compose national anthem but was rejected in favour of Negaraku
  2. He hated to be criticised and would cut off ties with friends who criticised his work.
  3. Had a lifelong partner, Peter Pears, who was his inspiration for various choral and operatic works designed to feature Pears’ tenor voice.
  4. Won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland
  5. Died of heart failure on 4 December 1976. Pears was buried by his side when he died 10 years later.
Benjamin Britten
photo credit: Wikipedia

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BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Recorded in 2011