I have a distinct (and wonderful) memory of being taken to see an orchestral performance of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf when I was quite young. It stands out as the first time I understood and appreciated the power of music as a ‘storyteller’ (and one that I continue to appreciate each time I go to the opera).
So I was pretty excited to read about conductor Stephen Simon’s opinion on classical music for children – “…introduce children to classical music through stories. Music and story are of equal importance.”
Simon, together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, has produced a collection of classical CDs for children, Maestro Classics, that combine well-known classical pieces with a narrated story, in the tradition of Peter and the Wolf.
The format of the Maestro Classics is interesting. Designed to develop listening skills and “accumulate musical memories” (a la my Peter and the Wolf moment!) the CDs include historical information about the music, the conductor speaking about the music and guest artists who transform story themes into entertaining musical pieces. So what does this all mean when you slip a Maestro Classic into the CD player?
I had the good fortune to listen to My Name is Handel – The Story of Handel’s ‘Water Music’. I’ll declare from the outset that I do love Handel’s Water Music. Sure, it may be a classical ‘crowd pleaser’ but that’s for good reason – it’s majestic, elegant and also gentle.
The story goes like this – when Handel, the brilliant young German composer living in London, needed to get back into King George I’s good graces, he composed a suite of dances, hired a boat and fifty musicians, and headed down the River Thames to surprise the King. The music became known as Water Music.
But there is a lot more to this story to be enjoyed. My boys liked the bit about Handel’s ‘keyboard competition’ with Italian composer Scarlatti, as well as interesting historical details such as the employment of ‘court composers’ (“That would be a good job!”, said my six-year-old). Some of Handel’s other major compositions are included in the story, such as his early opera, Rinaldo and the eternally beautiful Messiah.
The story goes for well over half an hour and in no way does the narration interfere with the music. The second track tells a little more about the authenticity of the Water Music story and the subsequent tracks include some sing-along songs. The accompanying booklet is extremely informative and pitched at a level suitable for children. It includes some general information about Handel as well as interesting sections on the Baroque period ranging from the importance of particular instruments such as the harpsichord and organ to architecture and social customs.
The clip below, while not from My Name is Handel, provides a wonderful example of how Simon’s enthusiastic insights are layered with a story and music – in this case, The Tortoise and the Hare.
Buy My Name is Handel directly from Maestro Classics for US$16.98 or from Amazon for US$14.89. Although this album is available on iTunes (for $16.99), I strongly recommend choosing the CD, given the terrific information booklet that’s included.