September, Congress has declared, is Classical Music Month. In that spirit, you can help create a crescendo for Beethoven, Bach & Co. with a slew of new products that teach children about classical music. The offerings go far beyond the Peter and the Wolf records you probably learned from--though Peter lives on in new versions.
You might start with two tape-and-book packages for kids 4 and up: In Astor Books' Looney Tunes Special Delivery Symphony ($7.98), kids follow Bugs Bunny in an amusing story that introduces the orchestral instruments. Astor's Donald's Wild Adventure ($8.98)--in which Donald Duck visits a haunted house--discusses the instruments to Saint-Sans' Danse Macabre, among other pieces. But it's flawed: The tape doesn't match the book exactly.
Tubby the Tuba, played by Manhattan Transfer in a Koch International CD, engages children in three tales that introduce the orchestra (plus one about a jazz band). By showing Tubby's misguided yen to be glamorous, the stories teach the lesson "be yourself." (All CDs mentioned cost around $15, all cassettes about $9.)
ZOO SUITS. Young kids will delight in videotapes that use Jim Gamble's puppetry: Peter and the Wolf, The Nutcracker, The Adventures of Peer Gynt, and Carnival of the Animals ($14.95, Bogner Entertainment). In Peter, children work with composer Prokofiev to choose instruments to portray the bird, the cat, and others. Carnival relates how Saint-Sans composed the piece as a child, when his mother wouldn't let him go to the carnival until he did his homework. Next with Gamble: Hansel and Gretel, the operetta.
Older children are more likely to tune into two of those stories on a brand-new Peter and the Wolf CD (Sony Classical). Clarissa, star of Nickelodeon's top comedy, narrates Peter and Carnival in updated fashion--inviting listeners to imagine Carnival as the greatest-ever visit to a zoo. This CD also contains Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, again with hip comments on instruments and musical variations. Clarissa's basic message: "Classical is cool."
Peter Ustinov proves a fine narrator in The Orchestra (Mark Rubin Productions/Alcazar), in both recording and video ($18.98). It delivers much more than its title suggests: It calls up excerpts to show how music can make people feel sad, silly, serious, and so on. It tells how a composer writes music. It explains harmony, rhythm, and tempo. And its playful treatment of music, in the video, is accompanied by charming animation.
The latest offering from makers of the phenomenally successful Beethoven Lives Upstairs (The Children's Group)--a recording that became a video, a live show, and a book--is Tchaikovsky Discovers America. Like Beethoven and sister products on Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart, Tchaikovsky's story blends fact, fantasy, and music. The composer, in New York to open Carnegie Hall, is rescued from reporters by Russian emigres and taken to Niagara Falls. Tchaikovsky, now only in audio, debuts in video next spring ($19.98), followed by a Mozart video and a new audio tape about Handel.
Once you've kindled an interest in classical music, producers offer several recordings "designed" for kids. There's Schroeder's Greatest Hits (including Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata), Cartoon Classics (including The Sleeping Beauty Waltz), and Tchaikovsky: The Children's Album (RCA Victor/BMG Classics). There's G'Night Wolfgang, G'Morning Johann, and Hey, Ludwig (Music for Little People). And there's The Classical Child, Vols. I, II, III, and IV, with selections from Bach, Haydn, and others (Metro Music). But none offers anything beyond the music itself to hold a child's attention. Come winter, look for a similar product, with a gimmick: Snoopy's Classical Classiks on Toys (Lightyear Entertainment) plays the masters on toy instruments.
In contrast, The House of Magical Sounds ($24.95, Sony Classical) is an ambitious video due in October. It begins by telling how conductor Claudio Abbado resolved at age 7 to have a music career and ends up teaching about the orchestra, conducting, composition, and opera. Mixing animation and real performances, it's sophisticated and assumes knowledge of World War II, for example. It's well done, and so full of information that it stands up for many viewings.
MASTER WORKS. Also serious are 18 recordings narrating the lives, with musical selections, of the masters, typified by The Story of Chopin (Vox Music Group). These are excellent products--for older children.
High tech really hasn't gone musical. Microsoft sells CD-ROMs on composers (Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mozart among them), but they're pitched to adults. Coming in September is the "maestro" edition of Music Mentor ($49.95, Midisoft). It goes beyond the music theory and history in the first edition, adding a composers' gallery and allowing users to orchestrate a concert and play tunes on various instruments.
Perhaps the most all-encompassing music product is a book, sort of: The Music Pack ($50, Knopf), due in November. It's a pop-up, pull-out, read-and-do package that lets owners discover the development of music, make scale models of instruments, see how music is recorded, and much more. It includes a CD of 20 masterpieces, and it's a sensational way to tune in to classical music.