Program Notes: Family Concert: Tubby the Tuba

June 3, 2022

Tubby the Tuba

George Kleinsinger
Born February 13, 1914, in San Bernardino, CA; died July 28, 1982, in New York City, NY

George Kleinsinger, an American composer and conductor, is famous for having composed Tubby the Tuba, which became what is probably the most famous children’s symphonic work after Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

In 1941, lyricist Paul Tripp and Kleinsinger attended an orchestral rehearsal of one of their works when their tubist informed them afterward, “You know, tubas can sing too.” That night, Tripp went home and wrote a simple story to be told in music and spoken word, focusing on the plight of the largest, lowest, and usually most disrespected instrument in the orchestra, the tuba. Unfortunately, World War II intervened, and the project was not finished until 1945. Success was not immediate for Tubby, which was issued in 1945 as a two-record 78 rpm set. Its multi-color cover was charming, depicting all the main characters. Printed on the inner album sleeves was Tubby’s full story, complete with a handful of simple line drawings. Famously, Danny Kaye did another version of the original story in a 1947 recording. His version included an appealing song, “The Tubby the Tuba Song” (“Tubby said, ‘Oh, gosh, oh, gee, wish I had a melody’”) which has become part of “Tubby’s” lasting fame.

Originally, Kleinsinger and Tripp conceived the work as a counterpart to Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Besides teaching about the instruments and musical appreciation, the story also conveys some lessons about life. Tubby feels rejected by his fellow instruments, but comes to accept both his size and his sound and feel good about himself as he is. 

The orchestra features piccolo (Peepo), flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba (Tubby), violin, cello, double bass, xylophone, cymbals, timpani, and celeste.


The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op. 34 

Benjamin Britten
Born November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, England; died December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, England

In 1946, Benjamin Britten, the leading British composer of the 20th century, was asked to compose the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra for a British Ministry of Education film to be used in schools to introduce children to orchestral instruments. He presents each instrument in a highly entertaining way by introducing a theme followed by variations, each of which features a different orchestral instrument or group of related instruments. 

Britten took his theme, a bright hornpipe, from the incidental music for Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge by the 17th century English composer, Henry Purcell, whose 250th birthday was being celebrated that year. After a unison statement of the theme, each of the orchestra’s four main sections, woodwinds, (“really a superior variety of pennywhistle,” the composer says) strings, (“scraped with a bow or plucked with the fingers; their cousin, the harp, is always plucked”) brass, (“modern descendants of old trumpets and hunting horns”) and percussion (“includes drums, gongs, tambourines and anything else that is hit”) is showcased. (The score features a descriptive text that may be read aloud during the music’s performance.) Britten demonstrates each instrument’s expressive appeal, displaying, e.g. the flutes’ playfulness, the oboe’s plaintive sadness, and the trombones’ solemn and stately character, highlighting each individual instrument with its own variation. 

The Young Person’s Guide premiered October 15, 1946 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting, in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool.

The work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, gong, whip, castanets, Chinese block, harp, strings, and optional speaker.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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