Some of the 20th century’s greatest actors have narrated Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic story Peter and the Wolf, including Peter Ustinov, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Basil Rathbone, Edna Everage, and one of my favorites, Boris Karloff. In 1978, David Bowie joined this illustrious company with his recording of the classic for RCA Victor with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Find part one above. Click links for part two, three, and four. Or purchase a pristine copy online here.)
Bowie begins, as do all of the narrators, with a brief summary of how this symphony works, with different instrumentation representing the various characters (see here for full text of the story and description of themes):
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.
Bowie has said he that he made the recording as a present for his son, Duncan, then 7. Prokofiev, commissioned by the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow in 1936 to help cultivate the musical tastes of young children, wrote the symphony in four days. As Tim Smith points out in an essay for PBS, Peter and the Wolf has “helped introduce generations of children to the instruments of the orchestra and the concept of telling a story through music.” I know it will be a part of my daughter’s musical education. I’m pretty sure we’ll start with Bowie’s version.