I have always loved music and I'm not ashamed to say that music rather loves me Although I'm not a trained singer, internationally acclaimed conductors and music buffs the world over always put me up there with Dame Joan Sutherland, Dame Kiri and any other dame you care to mention Needless to say, it's a big thrill for me to at last record one of my favourite pieces of classical music, Peter and the Wolf,I tend to believe in reincarnation, call me old fashioned but I do, and it may interest you to know that lam actually the reincarnation of Serge Prokofiev's mother. She was a wonderful old Russian housewife, and when little Serge was knee-high to a grasshopper she would put him on her knee and croon old-fashioned folk-tunes to him. Needless to say, this had a profound effect on the young composer and most of those tunes his mother hummed are in his masterpiece, Peter and the Wolf.
That's why I'm an absolute natural to record this work. Many people have done it before, I know, but this has to be the authentic performance After all, I actually wrote it in a spooky kind of way, so I ought to know how to perform it - don't you agree, possums? To make this the absolute definitive performance the orchestra is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, hand-picked players from my own home town, and arguably the finest group of musicians on the planet.
I've always been a big Benjamin Britten fan, possums, and his masterpiece, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is one of my favourite pieces. It's tuneful and educational, and I know this magnificent recording featuring myself will earn him many new fans. Poor old Benjamin rather blotted his copybook in Australia many moons ago when he visited the Sydney Opera House as it was being constructed. Admittedly, that famous building was having a few teething troubles and the orchestra pit was a bit on the cramped side. When Benjamin saw it he commented on its dimensions, and an Australian official - I think it was Sir Les Patterson - said "What's wrong with it? You can fit a whole orchestra in there". "Perhaps", replied Benjamin in a rather English voice (excusable, since he was English) "a whole orchestra of Japanese piccolo players!"
It was a rather cruel thing to say, I suppose, and Australians rather took it to heart, banning performances of his music throughout Australia for many years thereafter. Now, however, the thaw has set in and dear old Benjamin's music is being played once more in Australia, on this occasion by my favourite band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Let me guide you through it on this magnificent compact disc.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot; also on this recording, my manager Barry Humphries does a reasonably good job of narrating the story of Babar the Elephant.I used to read this wonderful story to my children when they were young It's by a Frenchman, but very good nonetheless. It would be mean of me to say anything derogatory about Barry's performance, since he tries very, very hard and the music is absolutely gorgeous.
Dame Edna Everage
Sergey Prokofiev (1891 -1953)
Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67
The Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev wrote his Peter and the Wolf in 1936 to introduce to children the instruments of the orchestra. He had taken his two sons to see performances at the Moscow. Children's Music Theatre and this had suggested to him the possibility of a composition of this kind. The boy Peter. represented by the strings, is playing in the meadow, forbidden territory. A bird, shown by the flute, sings in a tree: a duck, the oboe, swims in the pond, and a cat, the clarinet, comes onto the scene, sending the bird up to a higher branch. Peter's grandfather, the bassoon, warns the boy not to venture out, but meanwhile a wolf, the French horns, comes into the meadow, chases and swallows the duck whole, and lays siege to the cat and the bird, both now up the tree. Peter tells the bird to distract the wolf, while he catches it with a rope. Hunters then approach, their guns shown by the drums, and help to carry the wolf off to the zoo in a grand procession, with the duck still quacking inside the wolf and grandfather still complaining.
Francis Poulenc (1899- 1963) orch. Jean Françaix
The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant
Francis Poulenc's L'Histoire de Babar offers a series of musical comments on one of the well known illustrated children's stories by Jean de Brunhoff. Poulenc had known the Brunhoff brothers, Michel and Jean, for many years, but his musical treatment of the first of the Babar stories came about through the intervention of the daughter of one of his cousins. Obliged to serve in the army in 1918, he had been called up again in early 1940, to be demobilised in the summer of that year, He was staying with his friend Marthe Bosredon in Brive-Ia-Gaillarde, when they were visited by cousins of his. Poulenc was improvising at the piano. When he was interrupted by the daughter of one of the visitors, complaining that what he was playing was boring and demanding, instead, that he play her book, which she placed in front of him. Poulenc proceeded to provide musical illustrations for the story, taking note of whatever seemed to please his audience. He only returned to the work in earnest, at the prompting of the same young relative, in 1945, now providing the singer Pierre Bernac with a speaking rôle, as the story is told, while the piano adds the necessary musical picture in the form of a lullaby, a galop, a nocturne and other appropriate interventions. The composer Jean Françaix later orchestrated L'Histoire de Babar
Jean de Brunhoff's story centres on the little elephant Babar, whose mother has been killed by a hunter. He meets a dear old lady, who gives him a fine new suite and a splendid car, but Babar longs to return to the forest. He meets his cousins Arthur and Celeste and goes away with them, soon to be elected King of the Elephants, to replace the old King, who has died from eating poisonous mushrooms. Babar marries Celeste and the story ends with the couple dreaming, under a starry sky, of their future happiness.
Benjamin Britten (1913 -1976)
The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
(Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell)
Ten years after the première of Peter and the Wolf, in 1946, the English composer Benjamin Britten was asked to write music for an educational film introducing the instruments of the orchestra. For the purpose he chose a theme by the great seventeenth century English composer Henry Purcell and wrote a set of variations, each of which shows the characteristics of a particular instrument or group of instruments. The alternative title of the work, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, is an exactdescription. The other title, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, makes fun of the titles much favoured by writers of moral tales in the nineteenth century, providing 'young persons' with advice on how to regulate every aspect of their lives.
The theme, taken from music Purcell wrote for Aphra Behn's play Abdelazer or The Moor's Revenge, is played six times, At first the full orchestra plays the theme, followed by the woodwind (flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons). The theme is played a third time, this time by the brass (horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba), and then by the strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses, and, as extra, by the harp, an instrument not generally included in the string section of the orchestra). The percussion (drums, triangle, tambourine and cymbals) does what it can with the melody before the return of the full orchestra.
The first variation starts with the highest woodwind instrument, the piccolo, and two flutes, accompanied by the harp and violins. The oboes are given fuller accompaniment, leading to the clarinets demonstrating their agility, and to the deepest instruments of the woodwind section, the bassoons. The string section is allowed four variations, for violins, for violas, for cellos and for double basses. Four French horns introduce the brass section with its second variation for trumpets and its third for trombones and bass tuba. The kettle-drums (timpani) are joined by the bass drum and cymbals, tambourine and triangle, side drum and Chinese block, xylophone, castanets and gong, and, finally, the whip, simulated by hinged slats of wood brought smartly together.
The Young Person's Guide ends with a fugue, a traditional form of composition in which one part enters after another, using the same theme, so that the music grows gradually in size and intensity. The piccolo starts and the other instruments enter in order - flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, lead to violins, violas, cellos, double basses and harp, and then French horns, trumpets trombones and tuba, followed by the percussion. At the most exciting part of the fugue, the brass instruments play again the original theme, leading to a grand conclusion.