How to Build a Classical CD Collection

13. Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals. / Prokofiev: Peter & the Wolf. / Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

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.

Recommended recording
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. Naxos 8.550335

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