BRITTEN: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra / Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Benjamin Britten occupies an unrivalled position inEnglish music of the twentieth century and a place of thegreatest importance in the wider musical world. WhileElgar was in some ways part of late nineteenth-centuryGerman romantic tradition, Britten avoided the trapoffered by musical nationalism and the insular debt tofolk-music of his older compatriots, while profiting fromthat tradition in a much wider European context. He maybe seen as following in part a path mapped out byMahler. He possessed a special gift for word-setting andvocal writing, a facility that Purcell had shown and thatwas the foundation of a remarkable series of operas thatbrought English opera for the first time into internationalrepertoire. Tonal in his musical language, he knew wellhow to use inventively, imaginatively, and, above all,musically, techniques that in other hands often seemedarid. His work owed much to the friendship and constantcompanionship of the singer Peter Pears, for whomBritten wrote many of his principal operatic r??les andwhose qualities of voice and intelligence clearly had amarked effect on his vocal writing.
Born in the East Anglian seaside town of Lowestoftin 1913, Britten showed early gifts as a composer,studying with Frank Bridge before a less fruitful time atthe Royal College of Music in London. His associationwith the poet W.H.Auden, with whom he undertookvarious collaborations, was in part behind his departurewith Pears in 1939 for the United States, whereopportunities seemed plentiful, away from the pettyjealousies and inhibitions of his own country, wheremusical facility and genius often seemed the objects ofsuspicion. The outbreak of war brought its owndifficulties. Britten and Pears were firmly pacifist intheir views, but were equally horrified at the excesses ofNational Socialism and sufferings that the war brought.
Britten's nostalgia for his native country and region ledto their return to England in 1942, when they rejectedthe easy option of nominal military service as musiciansin uniform in favour of overt pacifism, but were able togive concerts and recitals, often in difficultcircumstances, offering encouragement to those whoheard them. The re-opening of Sadler's Wells and thestaging of Britten's opera Peter Grimes started a new erain English opera. The English Opera Group was foundedand a series of chamber operas followed, with largerscale works that established Britten as a composer of thehighest stature, a position recognised shortly before hisearly death by his elevation to the peerage, the firstEnglish composer ever to be so honoured.
The works included here come from the periodbetween 1937 and 1946. The earlier date is that ofBritten's tribute to his teacher, his Variations on aTheme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10, which was written forand performed by the Boyd Neel Orchestra at theSalzburg Festival in the same year. The theme itself istaken from Bridge's Idyll, Op. 6, No. 2, for stringquartet, and is first heard after the brief dramaticintroduction. Britten had planned to relate eachmovement to an aspect of Bridge's character. With thisin mind he suggested the Adagio as 'his integrity', laterchanged to 'his depth', followed by the March as 'hisenergy', the Romance as 'his charm', the Aria Italianaas 'his wit', later changed to 'his humour', the Bourreeas ' his tradition', the Viennese Waltz as 'hisenthusiasm', the Moto Perpetuo adapted as 'his vitality','his sympathy or understanding' reflected in the FuneralMarch, 'his reverence' in the Chant, 'his skill' in theFugue, and 'our affection' in the Finale. The work is,whatever the relevance of these personal analogies, atour de force, a highly skilful exploration of thepossibilities in writing for a small string orchestra. Thepoignant theme leads to a moving Adagio, followed bythe first satirical movement, a March, a Romance in thespirit of France, and an Aria Italiana that parodiesRossini. The Bourree Classique suggests Stravinsky athis most neo-classical and the Wiener Walzer, notcompletely acceptable at the time to some Salzburgcritics, is Vienna seen through the eyes of Ravel. Thevirtuoso Moto Perpetuo provides a transition to theseriousness of the Funeral March and the dark-huedChant. The Fugue, as has been pointed out, contains anumber of references to other works by Bridge, whosetheme returns in modified form in the Finale.
Britten wrote his Prelude and Fugue for 18-partString Orchestra, Op. 29, in 1943 for the Boyd NeelOrchestra, to mark the tenth anniversary of theensemble. The eighteen-part fugue provided a separatepart for each member of the orchestra. It is framed bytextures of some severity, the outer frame, on its return,reversing and transforming the opening version. Herethe composer makes full use of the sonorities inherent inthe instrumental forces available to him, displaying hisremarkable technical and musical abilities in the fugueitself.
The Occasional Overture was written for theopening of the BBC Third Programme in 1946. Itsperformance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra wasconducted by Sir Adrian Boult, about whose workBritten was generally unenthusiastic. The festivecomposition was only published posthumously in 1984.
A more significant work of the same year, and one thathas enjoyed continuing success, was The YoungPerson's Guide to the Orchestra, commissioned by theCrown Film Unit for an educational film, Instruments ofthe Orchestra, and dedicated, on publication, to thechildren of John and Jean Redcliffe-Maud, 'for theiredification and entertainment'. The originalcommentary was provided by Eric Crozier, who wrotelibretti for Albert Herring, Saint Nicolas, Let's Make anOpera!, and, with E.M.Forster, Billy Budd. The work is,formally, a set of variations on a D minor theme ofPurcell, taken from that composer's incidental music tothe play Abdelazar. This is first heard from the fullorchestra, followed by the different sections of theorchestra, woodwind, brass, strings, and finallypercussion, to be summed up by the whole orchestra.
Variations follow for the members of each section, firstpiccolo and flutes, then oboes, clarinets, and bassoons.
The violins are given a variation alla polacca, the violaa more soulful version, succeeded by the cellos withdeeper sonorities, and a variation for double basses thatincreases gradually in speed, ending in an ascendingscale and final glissando. The harp is heard againsttremolo strings, before the French horns introduce thebrass, and then two trumpets, one answering the other.
The section ends with trombones and bass tuba, Allegropomposo. After this percussion instruments make theirindividual appearances, and the whole work ends with asplendid fugue in which each instrument or group ofinstruments enters in order.Keith Anderson