I have held this one back (it should have been slotted in the “Heroes” era), as I had intended it as the final Christmas post on this blog, which I assumed would be in 2012. However, given my recently slowed pace (mild illness, overwork, burnout) and the still-massive amount of songs left to get through, it seems likely that the blog will still be active in December 2013, though blessedly it will be quite near the end by then.
So: Peter and the Wolf. Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow to write a symphony that would encourage musical taste in children. He wrote it allegedly in four days; it premiered on 5 March 1936, and according to Prokofiev, got a lukewarm reception. During the Thirties, Soviet art was often concerned with magic, fairy tales, legends and domestic happiness, with a consequent cult of the child and Stalin as a sort of national paterfamilias; Stalin was rehabilitating the idea of the “traditional family” (despite, or because, the fact that a housing shortage meant that a set of families were often jammed together in communal apartments).
Peter and the Wolf soon made its way to the West, its permanence assured a decade later, when Walt Disney made a film of it. From the late Thirties on, record labels made a habit of finding seemingly any actor with a spare afternoon to do the narration: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Jose Ferrer, Paul Hogan, Sirs John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Sean Connery, Dame Edna Everidge, and Sharon Stone. “The piece has become the classical equivalent of The Vagina Monologues,” wrote Cynthia Kaplan (who wound up buying the Bowie version) in her Leave the Building Quickly.
In 1977, RCA was looking to release a new version with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. They were reportedly turned down by Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness (the latter was in demand, as Star Wars had just come out) and decided on Bowie. He later said he agreed to do it as a Christmas present for his son, and in December ’77 he flew to New York to record his narration.
It’s one of the more charming versions of Peter and the Wolf ever recorded. Bowie was always inspired when he did children’s material (see his narration of The Snowman), giving it dignity and grace, never being condescending (he’s great in particular as the pissy cat: “Is it worth climbing up so high? By the time I get there the bird will have flown away!“). His old producer Ken Scott, after hearing “Kooks,” said he wished that Bowie would do a whole album of kid’s songs. This is as closest as Bowie ever came.
Here’s hoping that everyone has a merry Xmas and a fine New Year. We’ll be back around the New Year to finish off Buddha of Suburbia, and then onward to greater things Outside. Thanks, once again, to all readers and commenters.
See you in 2013.