The English composer Benjamin Britten was commissioned in 1946 to provide music to accompany an educational film introducing the instruments of the orchestra. This he did in a remarkable set of variations on a theme by the 17th century English composer Henry Purcell. Each group of variations shows off the qualities of a different family of the orchestra, strings, woodwind, brass and percussion, which all join in a final fugue, as each instrument enters in succession to create music of mounting intensity.
Sergey Prokofiev, faced with a similar educational task in his native Russia, tackled the matter more simply. Aiming at a much younger audience than Britten, he offered a straightforward nursery story, in which each character is represented by an instrument or group of instruments.
Camille Saint-Saëns, whose Carnival of the Animals is included on our recommended disc, intended his work as a light-hearted private joke, not for the general public. With its procession of curious creatures, including a double bass elephant, music critics, pianists and fossils, the Carnival has continued to amuse audiences, for whom the Swan probably remains the most familiar part of the menagerie.
Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals. Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf. Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, with the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) under Ondrej Lenárd.