You're probably expecting a list including works such as Mozart's "The Magic Flute", Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf", Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker", or Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals". These are all great works, but we figured they are already included in plenty of other "classical music for kids" lists. So, if you're looking to go beyond these tried and true classics, here is a list for you!
We've selected four examples of classical music and also created a larger Spotify playlist, curated especially for school-aged children (including some of the hits mentioned above)! You can also visit the "Learning Hub" section on our site for more resources and media.
Sergei Rachmaninoff - The Bells
When Sergei Rachmaninoff was nine years old, life became difficult. His father had not managed the family money well, and the Rachmaninoff family were forced to sell their estates. Not long after, one of his sisters died and his father left the family. His maternal grandmother came to live with them, and she and Sergei became very close. She often took him to Russian Orthodox Church; these outings greatly inspired him. Later in life, he used the sounds of the bells and the liturgical chants in his compositions.
His work Колокола (Kolokola - The Bells) was composed in 1913, and is based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. It was one of Rachmaninoff's two favourite compositions - the other being his "All-Night Vigil". It is a choral symphony (work for orchestra and choir), and, like the pome, is in four sections, describing four different kinds of bells/scenes:
Tinkling, silver sleigh bells
Mellow, golden wedding bells
Loud, clanging alarm bells
Mournful, tolling iron bells
Rachmaninoff discovered the poem through an anonymous letter. The sender (later discovered to be a young cellist) had included it in a Russian translation, and suggested that it might work well with music. As the composer had been searching for a text to set for a new choral (for choir) work, he was very excited about this and set right to work!
The music was inspired by some of Tchaikovsky's works (Rachmaninoff was a big fan of Tchaikovsky), and Rachmaninoff even sat at Tchaikovsky's desk in Rome, Italy to compose it!
Visit the shop page to learn about our Classical Inspirations: Sergei Rachmaninoff activity book for ages 6-12.
Igor Stravinsky - L'histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale)
"The Soldier's Tale" by Igor Stravinsky is based on a Russian folk tale. Along similar lines to the well-known German tale of "Faust", a soldier trades his violin and his soul with the Devil in exchange for wealth (in the form of a magic book). Stravinsky's work tells the story through music, dance, and narration. The music is very rhythmic and dance-like, with inspiration from many different genres - you might find yourself dancing, too!
The story is in two parts. In the first part, the Devil (in disguise) hears the soldier playing the fiddle and offers him a deal: the fiddle in exchange for a book which can tell the future. The soldier agrees to the trade, and spends three days with the Devil in order to teach him how to play the instrument. However, when he heads back home, he realises that three years, not days, have passed. The villagers think he is a ghost, and he discovers that his fiancée has married someone else. The Devil soon reappears, disguised as an old woman with wares to sell. The soldier isn't interested until the old woman offers...a fiddle! He buys it, but when he tries to play it, it doesn't make any sound. Angry and upset, he throws the fiddle away and tears up the magic book.
In the second part, the soldier hears about a sleeping princess. Her father has said that he will allow anyone who can awaken her to marry her. The soldier decides to try, but the Devil reappears, again disguised. The two play a game of cards; the soldier loses all his money, but wins back his fiddle (the music of which awakens the princess) and his soul. The Devil tells the soldier that if he ever leaves the castle, his soul will belong to the Devil once again. The soldier and the princess get married, and the soldier soon decides to bring his mother to come and live with them. Ignoring the Devil's warning, he and his wife travel to meet her.
As soon as they leave, the Devil once again takes his soul, and the soldier becomes a statue.
The moral lessons which come through the story are to do with not letting oneself become overcome by greed and about learning what is truly valuable in life.
As well as the complete work, Stravinsky also created other versions, including this one for violin, clarinet, and piano trio (with no narration/dance):
Here is the full work, performed in English. Note that in some performances certain words which are not child-friendly/inappropriate in the 21st century (such as the "n" word) may be used. In this performance, and most performances of this century, these things are omitted!
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Amy Beach - Four Sketches
"Four Sketches" by American composer Amy Beach is a work for solo piano in four movements. Each movement has a descriptive title and a short quote from a poem connected to it:
I. In Autumn ("Feuillages jaunissants sur les gazons épars!" (Yellowing leaves scattered on lawns!) - Alphonse de Lamartine)
II. Phantoms ("Toutes fragiles fleurs, sitôt mortes que nées!" (All fragile flowers, dead as soon as they are born!) - Victor Hugo)
III. Dreaming ("Tu me parles du fond d’un rêve" (You speak to me from the depths of a dream) - Victor Hugo)
IV. Fireflies ("Naître avec le printemps, mourir avec les roses" (Born with the spring, to die with the roses) - Alphonse de Lamartine)
Amy Beach had a special ability called "chromesthesia", where she could "see" colours in music. People who have this ability usually see each tonality (the character of a piece of music based on the key in which it is played) as specific colours. However, one person may see a certain tonality as blue, while another may see it as yellow. In this work, the most prominent colours, according to Amy's own colour associations, are green and black.
Visit the shop page to learn about our Classical Inspirations: Amy Beach activity book for ages 6-12.
Gian Carlo Menotti - Amahl and the Night Visitors
Gian Carlo Menotti was one of the most prominent opera composers of the 20th century. His most popular work is his Christmas opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors", inspired by the painting "Adoration of the Magi" by Hieronymus Bosch. It was the first opera ever written for television (NBC) in the USA. It was first aired on Christmas Eve in 1951, and was such a success that the broadcast became an annual Christmas tradition. It has been performed in stage productions many times, and several other film versions have also been created.
The work was inspired by the painting "Adoration of the Magi" by Hieronymus Bosch. Menotti stated that the role of Amahl was to always be performed by a boy; in operatic tradition, roles such as this can often be performed by a woman (usually a mezzo-soprano).
The story is sweet: A young, disabled boy and his mother encounter the Three Kings, who are on their way to meet the baby Jesus. Mother and son host the Kings in their humble abode, and the characters must confront issues such as lying, jealousy, and preconceptions about others. Humour runs throughout, and all ends well, with Amahl being miraculously cured. From a 21st century perspective, some elements of the text may bring up some talking points around 1950s beliefs (parenting methods, race) - a great opportunity to delve into history and to look at where society is today!
The composer's notes from the booklet with the original cast recording:
"This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.
I actually never met the Three Kings—it didn't matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.
My favorite king was King Melchior, because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother's favorite was King Kaspar. He insisted that this king was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don't know why he was so positive about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Kaspar never brought him all the gifts he requested. He was also rather puzzled by the fact that King Kaspar carried the myrrh, which appeared to him as a rather eccentric gift, for he never quite understood what the word meant.
To these Three Kings I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead, I came to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmas time one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town. Then there is the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza, the elaborate toy windows on Fifth Avenue, the one-hundred-voice choir in Grand Central Station, the innumerable Christmas carols on radio and television—and all these things made me forget the three dear old Kings of my old childhood.
But in 1951 I found myself in serious difficulty. I had been commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company to write an opera for television, with Christmas as deadline, and I simply didn't have one idea in my head. One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of the Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.
I am often asked how I went about writing an opera for television, and what are the specific problems that I had to face in planning a work for such a medium. I must confess that in writing "Amahl and the Night Visitors," I hardly thought of television at all. As a matter of fact, all my operas are originally conceived for an ideal stage which has no equivalent in reality, and I believe that such is the case with most dramatic authors. —Gian-Carlo Menotti"
There are many composers of all ages who are writing in the 21st century, including children such as Grace Moore:
You can check out our Living Composer posts on our blog!
If you are a Spotify user, listen to our Classical Music for Kids playlist: