Brain Pickings

David Bowie Narrates the Pioneering Soviet Children’s Symphony Peter and the Wolf

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How the clarinet cat and the oboe duck lifted the Iron Curtain for a magical performance.

In early 1936, compelled to cultivate a taste for music in young children, Natalya Sats, director of Moscow’s Musical Theater for Children, commissioned the legendary Ukrainian (then-Soviet) composer, pianist and conductor Sergei Prokofiev to create an innovative musical symphony for children. His answer was Peter and the Wolf, which made its debut on May 2 that year — a whimsical fable-like story whose narrator is accompanied by an orchestra of woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Each character in the story is represented by a different instrument — flute for the bird, oboe for the duck, clarinet for the cat, French horns for the wolf, bassoon for the grandfather, and so forth — with the idea of not only introducing children to classical music but also tickling their metaphor-hungry minds and inviting them to form symbolic auditory associations.

Over the decades that followed, Prokofiev’s fresh and groundbreaking symphony swelled into a cross-cultural classic that attracted dozens of recordings by some of the twentieth century’s greatest performers from all over the world. Among them was David Bowie: In 1978, in the middle of the Cold War, RCA Victor released David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf — a gorgeous recording of the Prokofiev classic, which Bowie made as a present for his 7-year-old son, Duncan, with music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

For a taste of this unusual and immeasurable delight, here is the beginning of the piece:

This is the story of Peter and the wolf.

Each character in the tale is going to be represented by a different instrument of the orchestra. For instance, the bird will be played by the flute. (Like this.) Here’s the duck, played by the oboe. The cat by the clarinet. The bassoon will represent grandfather. The wolf by the French horns. And Peter by the strings. The blast of the hunters’ shotguns played by the kettle drums.

The entire recording of David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf is well worth hearing — sample it below, then complement it with this vintage guide to the 7 essential skills of listening to music and a wonderful 1954 children’s jazz primer by none other than Langston Hughes.

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