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A Classical Music Starter Kit for Children

A guide to stimulating your child’s imagination with fascinating works written by composers through the ages.

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Image by Paige Cody on Unsplash

The classical repertoire is bursting with music for children, from pieces written specifically for children to perform, to those inspired by the composer’s own inner child . Music has been used to introduce children to music through animation, and favourites from family classics re-recorded for new audiences. Performers, ensembles and record companies have a rich history of curating compilation albums of music for or about childhood and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of child-inspired collections available. With this in mind, we’ve picked a few of our favourites and provided a guide to introducing your children to classical music.

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Image by Warner Music Company

Our first selection, featuring Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Camille Saint-Saëns The Carnival of the Animals, is an absolute treasure of an album. The violinist Itzhak Perlman assumes the role of narrator, guiding us through these Russian and French musical menageries. Together with featured pianists Marielle and Katia Labéque, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta, Perlman brings these two tales of the animal kingdom to life. Peter and the Wolf and The Carnival of the Animals have been enchanting children since they were composed in 1886 and 1936 respectively, and continue to be programmed in live performances around the world as well as extensively recorded. Primephonic features over 100 recordings of Peter and the Wolf and more than 500 recordings of The Carnival of the AnimalsThere’s lots for young animal enthusiasts to discover; Saint-Saëns ‘Swan’ is enduringly popular and ‘Tortoises’ wonderfully silly, Prokofiev’s Cat theme enchants by conjuring images of ‘velvet paws’ that belie its sinister plans for the avian characters represented by the oboe and flute.

A real joy of exploring recordings is just how many versions exist, with each orchestra presenting their own interpretation. The role of the narrator in Peter and the Wolf has been taken on by a variety of actors, from David Bowie to Mia FarrowSophia Loren’s version features on an album that includes a contemporary addition, a new composition called Wolf Tracks by the French composer Jean-Pascal Beintus narrated by the former president of the USA, Bill Clinton. As children around the world gather together to raise awareness of climate change, Wolf Tracks’ message regarding animal conservation is more relevant than ever.

Our next featured album also features Peter and the Wolf, this time narrated by Barry Humphries in character as Dame Edna Everage, but we have chosen this recording because it features Poulenc’s wonderful interpretation of L’Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant, narrated this time by Humphries as himself. In this work, Poulenc creates a beautiful sound world to accompany the well-loved tale of Babar the elephant. Originally written for piano and narrator, this edition features an orchestral arrangement, performed here by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and conducted by John Lanchberry. The original piano version, with the French language version of the story can also be found on Primephonic, a recording which also features a French edition of the tale of Ferndinand the Bull.

Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra can be found on many of the albums mentioned above. Written in 1945 for a television documentary intended to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra, it is now usually performed without a narrator, and many recordings can be found on Primephonic.

 

A common thread linking all these works is the motivation of the composers, across different nations and centuries, to stimulate the imaginations of children, which the educational theories of Montessori and Steiner encourage as supportive of abstract thinking.

Children begin life with no prejudices about concert halls and opera houses, and these days, most major orchestras run educational programmes that allow children to engage with orchestras in both formal and casual environments. Check out what’s happening at your local performance space! In the meantime, many of the works referred to earlier are available in various languages, as well as a wide range of accents amongst the English language recordings.

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Additionally, the ‘Menuetto Kids’ series of recordings for children presents an age-appropriate introduction to diverse composers, instruments and musical forms. Similarly, searching for ‘my first album’ in Primephonic will reveal some beautifully curated albums that your children can listen to again and again.

We hope that you and the young listeners in your life will enjoy discovering classical music together, whether at a live venue or at home, and that our selection of works above will lead you on a listening journey that inspires imagination and a lifelong love of music.

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Image by Naxos