The British Library have acquired a fascinating manuscript of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Tom Service tells the story
Really rather amazing, this. Firstly, that after advice from the marvellously monikered Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey should slap an export ban on a music manuscript (the last time that happened for a piece of music rather than a Manet was for a previously unknown piece of Purcell keyboard music in 1995); and secondly and more importantly, for what this draft autograph of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra has to tell us about the 32-year-old compositional process.The manuscript was put up for auction in November 2011 with a reserve price of £50,000. The British Libary were among those outbid by an anonymous overseas buyer, who bid £220,000 for the precious work. But it was then that the temporary export ban was applied, giving UK institutions and private individuals a two-month period in which they could make an equivalent offer in order to keep it in the UK.
The British Library has been able to raise the necessary amount, and they plan to make the score public during their celebrations for Britten's centenary in 2013, and, hopefully, to digitise it as well.
This is a particularly exciting acquisitation. No earlier sketches for the Young Person's Guide are known to survive - it would appear that Britten composed this piece directly into the present draft score. The manuscript is a revelation of the jaw-dropping fluency and almost infallible concentration of Britten's composition, at least around this time, right at the end of 1945. All the notes of the final version are here, even if Britten is as economical as possible with the number of staves he uses, to save as much manuscript paper as he can. But there are definite pointers to the music's orchestration, exactly as you hear them in Britten's most famous piece, the work through which millions of children all over the world have learnt the basics of the orchestra. The main revisions aren't in the notes at all, but in the words: Britten crosses out and reworks his own text for the narration, which would then change at the hands of Malcolm Sargent and Eric Crozier, and be performed, over the years, by everyone from Peter Ustinov to Dame Edna. The notes, though, are virtually seamless, with only a few crossings-out in the entire score, as I saw when I was given a sneak preview for Radio 3's Music Matters. (And yes, I did touch the leaves of the manuscript, which I reckon works out at around £10 000 a page. I had washed my hands, promise).
Britten finished the final page on Hogmanay 1945, and after the complexities of that thrilling final fugue on the Purcell theme that stalks the whole piece, he reduces the music to as few lines as possible, rushing to get the end of the piece so that he could play it to Basil Wright, the producer of the film that the piece was first written for, on New Year's Day 1946. That's one explanation: but I hope Ben was in a hurry to get to the pub to celebrate what he knew would be one of the best things he would ever do.
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