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. Or here it all free on Spo­ti­fy 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

David Bowie Releas­es Vin­tage Videos of His Great­est Hits from the 1970s and 1980s

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: How David Bowie Cre­at­ed the Char­ac­ter that Made Him Famous

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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Comments (4)
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  • Dan Clark says:

    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.”

  • Michael Boudewyns says:

    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

  • The Bowie Collection says:

    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 :)

  • Jennifer Henderson says:

    I think this ver­sion of Peter and the Wolf would qual­i­fy as a sym­pho­ny https://www.maestroclassics.com/peter-and-the-wolf.html

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