How to entertain your children and foster an interest in classical music? Composers have created many works for young people, from stories with musical accompaniment to didactic works that teach them about the instruments of the orchestra. Others have dedicated scores to children or composed pieces for them to play. Programme music – music that paints a picture – appeals to the child in all of us, so gather your littles ones around and settle down for a musical tale or two.

1Camille Saint-Saëns: The Carnival of the Animals

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his humorous suite in February 1886, a time when he should have been working on his Third Symphony, but, admittedly, this work was more “amusant” as he confessed to his Parisian publishers. Can we blame him?! Although the work saw a couple of private performances during the composer’s lifetime, Saint-Saëns specified that Le Carnaval should only be published posthumously so it wouldn’t detract from his “serious” composer image. Take your kids on a safari and hear roaring lions, hopping kangaroos, a swan (the famous cello solo!) gliding over the water, Cock-a-Doodle-Doos and a gloriously ponderous tortoise depicted by a satirically slow rendition of Offenbach’s Can-can.


2Sergei Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf is probably the best known classical music tale for children. Commissioned to write a “symphony for children” to introduce them to the instruments of the orchestra, Prokofiev responded with a story in which the different characters are represented by particular instruments: the flute is the bird, the oboe is the quarrelsome duck, the clarinet the slinky cat. Peter himself is represented by the strings, his grumbling grandfather by the bassoon, while a trio of horns take on the savage wolf. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let Itzhak Perlman begin:


3Alan Ridout: Ferdinand the Bull

Written in 1936, Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand tells of a gentle bull who doesn’t wish to take part in fierce bullfights but prefers to sit and smell the flowers. Alan Ridout’s setting, composed in 1971, is for narrator and solo violinist, whose fierce double-stopping stamps out familiar Spanish rhythms. This is a particularly lovely version, filmed recently by Ruth Rogers, of the London Mozart Players, and her son, Alexander.


4Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee

Bzzzzzz! With spring comes the buzzing sound of busy bumblebees. Whether you’re out and about, on your terrace or you forgot to close your window in the late afternoon sun – bzzzzzzzzz – everywhere! In your drink, on your cake, chaotically flying around your head.... bzzzzzz. The Flight of the Bumblebee is a buzzing earworm, but it’s probably less well known that Rimsky-Korsakov composed it as an episode in his opera The Tale of Tssssssssar Saltan.


5Claude Debussy: Children's Corner

Debussy dedicated his piano suite to his daughter, Claude-Emma (known in the family as Chou-Chou), the score bearing the words “with her father’s tender apologies for what follows”. Each of the movement titles is given in English, presumably acknowledging the family’s English governess. It’s a suite full of gentle humour, from the laborious piano practice of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (a parody of Clementi studies) to the elephant Jimbo’s Lullaby and the popular Golliwog’s Cakewalk which pokes fun at Wagner in its middle section. It’s no child’s play for the pianist, but Alain Planès plays it beautifully here.


6Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: Sonata violino solo representativa

Also known as Representatio avium (Depiction of birds), Biber’s sonata imitates – as the name suggests – birdsong… but isn’t there a frog croaking between the nightingales, chickens and quails? And watch out for the cat which causes some turmoil for our feathered friends. Closing with the March of the Musketeers – Biber later reused the march in his Battalia – this lovely sonata is the ideal background music for an adventurous day in the park.


7Benjamin Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a true classic of music education, known to every child who has ever set foot in a music classroom. It uses the Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s incidental music to Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer and shows the different colours and qualities of each instrument family of the orchestra. After the introduction, played by the entire band, the various sections introduce themselves with a different variation and it ends with an original fugue reassembling the pieces. Now it’s time for your children to pick their favourite instrument and start those music lessons!


8Francis Poulenc: The Story of Babar, the little elephant

During a summer holiday in 1940, Poulenc was staying with cousins. Bored by his piano playing, the children of the house placed Jean de Brunhoff’s popular story of Babar onto the piano and asked him to play that instead. Poulenc duly obliged, improvising a musical narrative which he later set down as a score for piano and narrator. Here, Barry Humphries is the engaging storyteller.


9Edward Elgar: The Wand of Youth

Music of childhood here, as Edward Elgar composed tunes, as a boy, to use in plays put on by his brothers and sisters. He jotted them down in sketchbooks and returned to them four decades later to create his two suites, The Wand of Youth. The Second Suite closes with Wild Bears… who sound very jolly rather than dangerous!


10Gabriel Fauré: Dolly Suite

The opening movement of Fauré’s Dolly Suite will sound familiar to slightly older children: it was used as the theme of the BBC’s radio programme Listen with Mother which ran between 1950 and 1982. Berceuse marks the first birthday of Régina-Hélène Bardac, known as Dolly and the daughter of Fauré’s mistress, the singer Emma Bardac. The other five short pieces tell about Dolly’s attempts to pronounce her brother’s name (Mi-a-ou), her dog (Kitty-valse), and Le jardin de Dolly – according to Fauré scholar, Jean-Michel Nectoux – truly the “jewel of the suite”. It is a wonderful love letter to Dolly and her mother Emma, who sadly prevented a happy-end. She later married Claude Debussy instead.