I don’t recall, in all those years when music was a required subject in my schools, being told what you call the type of composition they liked to play for us. It involved a mass of music interspersed with bits of narration. Whatever it’s called, it is a serious part of the Book Fair’s record section every year.
One stalwart of the genre is Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I wonder if there’s a list of every single celebrity who has narrated this on disc. We see the Peter Ustinov version fairly often, but almost never the David Bowie narration. I have never run into the Sean Connery version, but the one read by Sir Ralph Richardson sometimes comes in. Just looking at records for sale online, I can see Peter and the Wolf narrated by Bea Lillie, Paul Hogan, Patrick Stewart, Cyril Ritchard (that’s the one my parents had), Arthur Godfrey, and Weird Al Yankovic. One could go on, but that would just leave us all wondering “What celebrities did NOT narrate Peter and the Wolf”?
Anyone who didn’t must surely have been picked out to narrate A Lincoln Portrait, by Aaron Copland. A quick look at the narrators who have done THAT over the years includes a number of serious souls: politicians and/or sons of Illinois: Charlton Heston, Everett Dirksen, Melvyn Douglas, Walter Cronkite, Gregory Peck, Adlai Stevenson, Aaron Copland himself, Katherine Hepburn (I was about to ask if women were ever allowed to perform this text), Carl Sandburg, Henry Fonda (I suppose anyone who played Lincoln on Stage or screen HAS to do this: has Daniel Day-Lewis fulfilled his obligation yet?)
On a lighter note, though slightly tangential, there’s the Carnival of the Animals, which acquired its now-standard narration years after it was composed by Camille Saint-Saens when Ogden Nash supplied verses to accompany the animals. Celebrities who have been called in to narrate THIS include Bugs Bunny, Noel Coward, Michael Flanders, Peter Ustinov (He and Flanders did both this as well as Peter and the Wolf: I wonder if anybody ever did all three), Garry Moore…the list goes on.
There are other, similar pieces: I see here there’s a Dracula written on the same principles, and Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is the same sort of thing. We will certainly have a wide assortment of these in July, but I am really leading up to a work we will, alas, NOT have. Someone gave us the jacket but kept the record. You will understand that, I’m sure, when I explain.
The record was a 10-inch 78 rpm advertising piece for Norgine Laboratories, makers of Spasmacol and Enzypan. The title of the record was “The Recorded Detailman”, and its slogan was “When YOU are Really Free to Listen”. There is no explanation anywhere of the title or the slogan.
Side 1 plays this year’s ad for whatever product Norgine was pushing; I’m guessing, from the size of the ads inside the jacket, that this was Enzypan, an antacid. They were very proud of side 2, which represented the first modern recording of a viola da gamba masterpiece by seventeenth century composer Marin Marais. This was just another such narrated classic like, oh, the Lincoln Portrait or the Carnival, entitled “The Tableau of a Bladder Operation.” The narrator tells the tale as if he is personally undergoing the surgery, in that pre-anaesthetic age; it concludes with his recovery. (Marais lived to be 72.) Norgine calls it a masterpiece, and I understand Marais to have been a master of the viola da gamba.
But it’s an awfully long way to go, just to tell everybody about his operation. Anyway, you’ll have to hunt for it on YouTube, unless the disc shows up in another box. I, personally, will go listen to Michael Flanders read Peter and the Wolf.