Archive Treasures: The Beginnings of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide and Peter, Slava and the WolfStories
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is one of Britten’s most popular works. Few people know that it started its life as notes written in the composer’s 1945 diary.
Britten finished the year 1945 by writing music for a project commissioned by the Ministry of Education. A new film whose specific function was to show the various components of an orchestra. Instruments of the Orchestra would feature the London Symphony under the baton of Malcolm Sargent. An accompanying script was written by Peter Grimes librettist Montagu Slater, although Eric Crozier wrote a text for the published score. Made by the Crown Film Unit, it was produced by Muir Mathieson—no stranger to the world of film music as he had worked with composers such as Bliss, Walton, Vaughan Williams and Arnold on various Ministry of Education projects during the War.
Britten based his score around a theme from the Rondeau from Purcell’s incidental music for the play Abdelazar. Following the opening, he explores the character of each instrument in a set of variations before returning with a fugue and reintroduction of the theme in a grand climax. How to begin? Britten probably wondered in late 1945. Usually, we look to the manuscript to answer this question. The full score for the piece is in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the composition draft resides at the British Library in London.
The very origins of the piece, however, can be found in an appointment diary that Britten kept. The end pages were used for jotting down addresses, birthdays, street directions and, in the composer’s case, an outline for one of the great musical works for children.
On one page, following the orchestra’s initial tuning up, he lists the instruments in order in which they are to play. Interestingly, the strings come after the percussion, but a crossing out suggests he immediately rethought this idea (as indeed he did). On the opposite page we can see Britten’s jotting of possible gifts (including tie, shaving stick, books) for friends and family.
On the reverse of the page, Britten starts to focus on details about the character of each instrument, thinking specifically about the ‘very agile’ flutes, and how one of them often plays the piccolo. Soon after that Britten, however, put down his diary and picked up his manuscript paper as by then he was obviously eager to begin composing.
The Young Person’s Guide is often paired in performance and recording with that other well-known introduction to orchestral instruments, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. And, leaping forward nearly forty years, we have a notable connection with this Russian masterpiece.
In August 1983 the inaugural Rostropovich Festival took place in Aldeburgh and Snape under the guidance of Britten and Pears’ great friend Mstislav Rostropovich. It began with a concert that featured Britten’s Simple Symphony, Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C (Hob. VIIb.i) and Sergei Prokofiev’s
First (‘Classical’) Symphony and Peter and the Wolf. Rostropovich was both soloist and the conductor of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, and Peter Pears was the narrator. A practised reciter of poetry, prose and a fine actor, Pears no doubt relished participating in Prokofiev’s timeless tale.
Rehearsals for the concert took place at the Thorpeness Working Men’s Club, and they were captured by photographer Ian Cook who was working in Aldeburgh that weekend. In June of this year Mr Cook mounted an exhibition of his work at the Aldeburgh Gallery and the photographs of the rehearsal were among them. Mr Cook has generously donated his images to the collection, and we are displaying four of them as part of this week’s Archive Treasure.
In addition to telling a story, photos often convey the personality of their subject—working a little like Britten’s characterisation of instruments. These photos tell us how well Pears and Rostropovich complemented one another: the narrator assuming a good-humoured dignity and the conductor sometimes embodying the characters from Prokofiev’s imaginative score.
- Dr Nicholas Clark, Librarian