One type of musical form is the Theme and Variations. As the name implies, this kind of piece first states a main tune (the “theme”). Then the composer changes the tune in different ways— faster, slower, happy, sad, even upside down! (the “variations”)
Another musical form that we’re going to hear today is the Fugue. In a fugue, a melody is played by many voices, entering one after another, kind of like a complicated round. Like a beautifully-woven piece of cloth, the voices intertwine using fragments of the main melody.
When Benjamin Britten was asked to write a piece introducing children to the instruments of the orchestra, he thought that a theme and variations was the best way to do this. He composed The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (also known as Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell) in 1945.
The Young Person's Guide begins by first playing the main theme, a melody from the 17th century by English composer Henry Purcell. Here’s the tune as Purcell originally wrote it:
During this statement of the theme, we get a sneak preview of what’s to come, as each section is briefly featured: first the winds (at 0:28), then the brass (0:50), the strings (1:10), and percussion (1:26).
Then, each instrument within the orchestra gets a starring role in a variation.
Once all of the instruments have been introduced, the whole orchestra comes together in a fugue on the theme (14:10)—starting with the piccolo and working through the orchestra, until everyone is playing together!
Listen to The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and see if you can name all the instruments! (Hint: we’ve made a list below to help you out...)
Can you describe the ways the tune is changed for each instrument? (Another hint: we've made a list of adjectives—descriptive words—below the instruments to give you some ideas. Feel free to use your own words, too!)
- flutes and piccolo
- French horns
- trombones and tuba
- bass drum, cymbals
- tambourine, triangle
- snare drum, woodblock
- castanets, tam-tam
An Historic Return
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