British Library acquires original manuscript of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’

The British Library has acquired the draft score of ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, one of the most famous compositions of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Completed on New Year’s Eve 1945, this original manuscript charts the composer’s earliest ideas for what has become one of the most frequently performed pieces by any British composer. Britten subsequently wrote out a full orchestral score, after which no further use was made of the draft, which he gave to a friend. It remained completely unknown until last year.

The manuscript was sold to an overseas buyer at auction in November 2011, but Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the manuscript, to provide a last chance to raise the money to keep the manuscript in the country. The Minister’s ruling followed a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by Arts Council England. The British Library acquired the manuscript for the national collection on 30 March 2012.

No earlier sketches for the ‘Young Person’s Guide’ are known to survive, and it would appear that Britten composed this piece directly into the present draft score. This manuscript reveals very directly the astonishing fluency with which Britten was able to construct a large-scale work. Almost every aspect of the piece is already worked out in detail in this first draft, including comprehensive explanations of instrumentation and articulation. The fugue which ends the piece is a work of considerable complexity, but shows no struggle in its creation.

Richard Chesser
, Lead Curator of Music, British Library, says: “We are delighted to have acquired this important manuscript, keeping it in the UK. Many of Britten’s draft scores give similar evidence of his consummate genius, but this is a particularly fine example and a celebrated piece of music. It is remarkable that there is no evidence of planning of the larger structure, such as numbering of the variations: this information was added only later, in the full orchestral score. The manuscript is an exciting addition to the British Library’s archives.”

Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and Creative Industries, said: “I am delighted that the temporary export bar I placed on the manuscript has resulted in the British Library being able to save this fantastic piece of British musical history for the nation. The British Library is home to one of the world’s most impressive research collections, including a fine collection of music manuscripts, so it is a most fitting home for this item.”

This manuscript is undated, but it seems that Britten did not begin to compose the piece until the end of 1945. He played it through on the piano to the producer Basil Wright on New Year’s Day 1946, presumably from this draft manuscript score, which is mainly written in a condensed scoring to enable piano performance. The orchestration of the full score was completed shortly thereafter, the film and music were recorded separately between March and June 1946, and the film was released in November. It was distributed to schools from December 1946, accompanied by an explanatory guide for teachers, but soon its reputation spread and it was released by MGM nationally and internationally.

Meanwhile, the music quickly became a popular concert piece, at first with a new commentary text by Eric Crozier, later with other commentaries, the most recent of them by Wendy Cope for the Last Night of the Proms in 2011. Together with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Britten’s work must surely be the most successful and widely known introduction to the orchestra. The phrase ‘young person’s guide’ which he coined has entered common parlance in a wide variety of contexts. The piece also played an important part in the efforts of Britten and others to reacquaint the British public with the music of Henry Purcell.

The British Library acquired the manuscript through private treaty sale, as invited by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey in the DCMS press release of 9 March. It joins the Library’s outstanding collection of twentieth century musical autographs, which also includes major holdings of the manuscripts of Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Tippett and Maxwell Davies.

Notes to Editors:

For more information contact:

Evie Jeffreys

British Library

+44 (0) 20 7412 7105


For more information on the Reviewing Committee contact:

Sam Gough

Media Relations Officer

Arts Council England

+44 (0) 20 7973 5189


The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by Arts Council England, which advises the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria. Where the Committee finds that an object meets one or more of the criteria, it will normally recommend that the decision on the export licence application should be deferred for a specified period. An offer may then be made from within the United Kingdom at or above the fair matching price.

Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2011 and 2015, we will invest £1.4 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country. www.artscouncil.org.uk

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The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.  



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