Classical music for kids can often be awful. For example, if you’ve ever listened to any of the CDs of concert music marketed by Baby Einstein, then you know the recordings are terrible, rife with synthetic instruments and music box sounds. It’s a shame that these are some of the most popular classical kids’ CDs (the company, now part of Disney, was estimated to be worth $400 million several years ago), since there’s no reason that infants and children shouldn’t be able to listen to fabulous, fully orchestrated recordings, just like adults.
If you want to start introducing your children to concert music that’s performed by some of the best musicians in the world, here are five CD suggestions.
The first three titles can all be found on Bernstein Favorites: Children’s Classics, featuring conductor Leonard Bernstein. If you’re only buying one CD, this is the one I’d recommend.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is probably the best-known children’s composition by a composer. Prokofiev was commissioned by a theatre in Moscow to write a symphony for children that would cultivate “musical tastes in children from the first years of school,” and he wrote the piece in just four days in 1936. Numerous films have been made of the work (which includes a spoken narration to accompany the orchestration, and runs 25 minutes). This version, narrated by David Bowie, also includes a couple other tracks on this list.
Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le carnaval des animaux is much-loved by children and adults. It’s a suite of 14 movements (running under 30 minutes) that the French Romantic composer wrote while vacationing in an Austrian village. He worried that its capriciousness might destroy his reputation as a serious composer, so he only allowed one movement (The Swan) to be published while he was alive. Consequently, it was first performed in 1922.
The work begins with the Royal March of the Lion, featuring two pianos and strings. The listener is introduced to various instruments and melodies representing different animals, such as hens and roosters, tortoises, the elephant, kangaroos, donkeys, a cuckoo, and is musically taken into an aquarium and aviary.
The version on Bernstein Favorites (see No. 3, below) includes a narration by Bernstein with the orchestration.
Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell was commissioned for an educational documentary in 1946, and has since become one of the most well-received tools for introducing youngsters to music, as it takes listeners on a tour through the various sections of the orchestra. It’s a great way for children to learn to tell the difference between various instruments and to gain an understanding of musical composition. You can find recordings that include the original narration or versions that are solely instrumental.
Robert Schumann wrote Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) in 1838. The 13 pieces of music for piano give his perspective, as an adult, looking back on childhood. (The work originally had 30 movements, but Schumann kept less than half of them.) This recording features Vladimir Horowitz playing his favorite composer.
Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye originally was composed as a piano duet in 1910. It was transcribed for solo piano later that year, and Ravel orchestrated the work the next year. In 1912, he expanded Mother Goose into a ballet. The five pieces in the original work are a dance of Sleeping Beauty, Little Tom Thumb, Little Ugly Girl, Beauty and the Beast, and the Fairy Garden.