David Bowie Narrates Sergei Prokofiev’s Children’s Symphony Peter and the Wolf

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.

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Rare 1946 Film: The Great Russian Composer Sergei Prokofiev Plays Piano, Discusses His Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  1. Dan Clark says . . . | July 3, 2013 / 9:49 am

    Sorry, _Peter and the Wolf_ is not a “symphony,” even if commissioned as such. The music is performed by an orchestra, sometimes called a “symphony orchestra,” but the piece of music is not a “symphony” — it is something more like a narrated tone-poem. A “symphony” has specific historically-evolved characteristics, e.g., usually four movements each with its own characteristics such as structural form (e.g., sonata-allegro form for the first movement, a slow tempo movement, another movement often in the form of a fast light-hearted waltz, and a closing movement often a set of variations on a theme; often the movements are related to each other by remaining relative to the key or tonal center of the entire piece). From the Classical Period onwards, this structural approach gradually evolved to sometimes include more movements, varied internal structures of each movement, etc., but still the overall structure of most symphonies can be traced back to the classical forms used by Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries. _Peter and the Wolf_ while a wonderful piece of musical storytelling, just doesn’t fit the form of a “symphony.”

  2. Michael Boudewyns says . . . | July 4, 2013 / 9:42 am

    I, too, love “Peter and the Wolf”!

    Since 2004 I’ve been performing a vaudeville-inspired, solo, fully-staged performance of “Peter and the Wolf” with orchestras around North America; Philadelphia Orchestra, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Richmond Symphony Orchestra, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Westchester Philharmonic, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, and more.

    This next season I’m performing “Peter and the Wolf” with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (Oct. 20, 2013), the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. (Feb. 23, 2014), the Richardson Symphony Orchestra (Apr. 5, 2014)

    I’ve now performed it more than 55 times, and it’s always a thrill.

    Here’s a quick “Sneak-A-Peek” video of my solo “Peter and the Wolf” performance: http://vimeo.com/56736543

    I’m always moved by the joy and delight audiences express at experiencing this timeless and thoroughly entertaining composition. It is, in my opinion, a masterpiece that will continue to entertain audiences forever. I firmly believe that “Peter and the Wolf” has the same timeless appeal as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” A real work of genius that people enjoy returning to time and time again. It is, as Peter Dobrin, Music Critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said: an orchestral “rite so powerful as to be sacred.”

    “Peter and the Wolf” is clearly the benchmark against which all other compositions for young audiences are judged. The most amazing element is that each character has their own distinct hummable melody; and all play an integral role in the story; nothing is superfluous. Our production company, Really Inventive Stuff, presents other vaudeville-inspired orchestra productions of “Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham”, “Tubby the Tuba”, “The Story of Babar” and even Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” – but each of those entertaining compositions stand of the shoulders of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

    Thanks for sharing the video links. It’s always wonderful to discover others who also loves “Peter and the Wolf.”

    Michael Boudewyns
    http://www.ReallyInventiveStuff.com co-founder

  3. The Bowie Collection says . . . | July 28, 2013 / 8:33 am

    Because of idolizing of bowie I just create a site for bowie collection.

    Collecting bowie, they just telling that is crazy but I don’t care.

    Heres the blog I created http://www.thebowiecollection.info/.

    Thanks for the author of blog :)

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