Every composer finds himself doing hack work once in a while; it’s called paying the bills. Tchaikovsky was loathe to write “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” He held his nose and did it anyway, and today “The Nutcracker” is his most famous work.
Same with “Peter and the Wolf.” It’s cute but hardly what Prokofiev wanted to be remembered for. And wouldn’t you know it? The composer of some of the greatest music of the 20th century is today mostly remembered for “Peter and the Wolf.”
Nonetheless, “Peter and the Wolf” is an inventive bit of music. Each character is illustrated by a different instrument in order to teach children the timbres of the orchestra: Peter by the string section; grandfather by the bassoon; the bird by the flute; the duck by the oboe; and the wolf by three horns. And the narrative? Well, the narrative gives celebrities a chance to be the star of a 100-piece orchestra. Narrators have included Eleanor Roosevelt, William F. Buckley Jr., Beatrice Lilly (remember her?), Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame, rock star David Bowie, and, of course, Leonard Bernstein, hamming it up as both narrator and conductor.
There are three other compositions in classical music that call for narration: “Carnival of the Animals”, “A Lincoln Portrait”, and “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Like “Peter and the Wolf” each is about 23-minutes long.
Camille Saint-Saens composed “Carnival of the Animals” as an amusement for his Parisian friends. He did not want it published. After he died that is exactly what happened-- in 1921, it was published, and, of course, became one of Saint-Saens most famous works. In 1949, poet Ogden Nash wrote a clever narrative and that is how “Carnival” is usually performed today--with Nash’s clever narrative. Narrators have included Glen Close and Shakespearean actor Jeremy Irons.
The line of celebrities waiting their turn is longest for “A Lincoln Portrait”, by Aaron Copland. Copland wrote some of his best music for this piece, and selected the words from Lincoln’s speeches and letters. Narration calls for an authoritative voice. Celebs have included Walter Cronkite, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Samuel L. Jackson, Katherine Hepburn, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, and two presidents: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” by Benjamin Britten is based on the Rondeau by Henry Purcell’s music to “Abdelazer,” and is structured in such a way to show off the various sections of the orchestra--woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings. The narration was written by Montagu Slater, Britten’s collaborator on his opera “Peter Grimes.” Generally, the conductor does the narration. And, yes, “Young Person’s Guide” turned out to be Britten’s most popular work.