Ann Rachlin, storyteller, MBE, and pioneer of music appreciation, has been working for years—she’s now eighty—but she really came to prominence in the mideighties, when she started teaching little Prince William. I wonder if that’s when my mom bought her records. Whatever the reason, her “Fun with Music” series was in heavy rotation at our house, and the distinctive, lilting rhythms of her idiosyncratic narratives was the sound track of our childhoods. I think if you’d asked me between the ages of four and six which celebrity I would have most liked to meet, the answer would have been Ann Rachlin. (Well, Ann Rachlin and Jeff the mannequin from Today’s Special.)
The records (and later tapes, for playing in the car) featured narration over classical music pieces. Sometimes, as in the case of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, or the deeply distressing Swan Lake, Rachlin based her tale on a preexisting story. Others were wholly original, and often unabashedly bizarre. (I am thinking especially of Lost Coin in a Fountain, set to Respighi.) To call Rachlin’s style “expressive” is a vast understatement: her voice rises and falls dramatically, she takes on all characters with gusto, she evokes laughter and tears and bafflement. She is so wholly uninhibited that it’s shocking even to a child. Maybe especially to a child. And while her tales are all designed to capture a child’s imagination, she does not shy away from sadness and even, occasionally, tragedy. (See: Swan Lake.)
The recordings are all still available, and many can be found on Spotify, too. Along with The Carnival of the Animals (with doggerel by Ogden Nash), Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic’s Peter and the Wolf, I think they remain some of the very best classical-appreciation recordings for children. (If, indeed, this is its own category.) I have gifted them with success, and having recently relistened to a few highlights, I can say with authority that they’re just as eccentric as I remembered.
You can get a sense of this from the following clip. Frankly, her outfit alone—a sort of contra-dancing princess gown—tells quite a story all on its own.