Catherine Zeta-Jones: The Runaway Bunny
Oscar™ Winners Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas join forces and perform these beloved musical compositions based on three children’s masterpieces. Catherine narrates the Piano Trio Version (with Trio 21) of The Runaway Bunny, the contemporary classic by Glen Roven; Michael narrates the beloved The History of Babar, with the brilliant score by Francis Poulenc. English Baritone Mark Stone sings Roven’s Goodnight Moon along with the GPR Festival Choir. The perfect gift for the young and the young at heart.
Order Catherine Zeta-Jones: The Runaway Bunny
The Elephant in Spats
The Story of Babar
What does a lullaby sound like? Many of us parents think we know; if forced, some night, we could probably make one up on the spot. But what does an elephant’s lullaby sound like? And how does it sound to a dozing baby elephant as he is rocked to sleep by the gentle nudging of his mother’s trunk on a warm jungle evening? Francis Poulenc’s L’Histoire de Babar (1945) begins with this wonderfully tender and strange lullaby and proceeds through some of the loveliest, most imaginative music ever written for children. Based on the first of an immensely popular series of children’s books written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff, first published in 1931, The Story of Babar recounts the adventures of a little elephant who flees to the city when his mother is killed by a hunter. There he is befriended by a kind old lady, who introduces him to the pleasures of civilized life – clothes, cars, tea. His elephant cousins Arthur and Celeste find him, and after a grateful farewell to the old lady (a hymn, quite sublime, located at 11:08), he cheerfully returns to the jungle, where he is appreciated for his cultivated ways, and promptly elevated to King of the Elephants (the previous King having died from eating a poisoned mushroom). He weds his childhood sweetheart, Celeste (a solemn, elephantine march, track, located at 18:20), there is a party (a delightful Galop, 20:07) and the piece ends with a Nocturne that is a perfect setting of the lovely final illustration in the Brunhoff book: Babar and his bride standing side by side, gazing out upon a starry sky. All this Poulenc conveys with great charm, gentle irony and exactly the right degree of Gallic sophistication; Babar, after all, is the only elephant ever to wear spats. As Poulenc himself noted: “I am writing… with the hope of amusing grown-up children as well.”
Ever since the books were first published, parents have debated whether to skip over the early and rather shocking death of Babar’s mother. (For those wishing to avoid this incident, it locate at 03”44-04:33 on the present recording. However, be sure not to miss the brief but breathtaking moment in the music when Babar reminisces about his mother, 07:18. The story does not linger on the horror, but deals with it quickly and frankly, and then passes on, paying tribute to the child’s resiliency and healthy delight in life. It is significant that Poulenc first conceived of Babar in 1940 but actually composed it in a few inspired days (“I am working like an angel,” he wrote) just after the end of World War II. In setting Brunhoff’s story of the little elephant, Poulenc gave us a touching, optimistic fable about the necessity and the excitement of growing up and finding one’s own place in the world – that magical transformation by which the child becomes adult.
Herschel Garfein is a GRAMMY® award-winning composer and lyricist. He wrote the celebrated libretto for Aldridge’s opera Elmer Gantry, and music and lyrics for the operatic adaptation of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (based on the play by Tom Stoppard).
First Wonder at the World
Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952) is early childhood’s poet laureate, the peerless creator of scores of lyrical, slyly humorous picture books for people still new to the world.
Best known as the author of Goodnight Moon (1947) and The Runaway Bunny (1942), Brown revolutionized writing for the youngest ages not only by lifting a seemingly trifling genre to the level of an art form but also by subtly absorbing into her varied work many of the key insights of modern progressive education. As a teacher trainee at New York’s progressive Bank Street School during the mid-1930s, Brown came to see children as resilient, creative, ever-changing beings with a deep-seated curiosity about their world. Children, she realized, learned best by doing, and in the books she began to write while still a Bank Street student Brown continually devised fresh ways to enlist her young listeners’ active collaboration at story time, not least by providing them with the pattern for a ritual “goodnight” game that children the world over have embraced now for more than three generations.
Goodnight Moon is the quintessential first book in the life of a child: a calming, comforting revelation of the world as a Great Green Room where all is well and a small child’s wants and needs are everywhere satisfied. The Runaway Bunny is another story altogether: a tale for the slightly older child who now feels ready, albeit with some trepidation, to sally forth from home for a taste of adventure.
Brown found her inspiration for The Runaway Bunny–and for the book’s call-and-response structure—in a seemingly unlikely source: a Provençal love ballad, “Magali,” which she may have known from the 1933 French transcription by François Seguin. The result is arguably the most passionate picture-book narrative ever written, a lover’s magic quest tale transformed into an equally expansive story of a small child’s first burst of independence and a mother’s affirmation of her unconditional love.
For Brown, the transformation from ballad to book required no great leap. She considered the art form she practiced to be a direct, modern-day descendant of the folk songs and ballads of earlier times. “A good picture book,” she observed, somewhat elliptically, in this connection, “can almost be whistled.” As though to prove the point, Brown once read a story in French to a group of three-year-olds who did not know the language. “They couldn’t understand a word,” she reported in triumph. “They loved every syllable.”
Just prior to her untimely death, at 42, of an embolism following surgery, Brown herself turned to song writing, teaming up with composers Alec Wilder, Ruth Cleary Patterson, and folk singer Burl Ives, among others to record simple songs she hoped would inspire children to make up their own. A few years earlier, she had pursued another equally ambitious, music-related dream: that of opening the world of concert performance to the youngest listeners. In 1947, the year of Goodnight Moon’s publication, New York Philharmonic performed her Little Brass Band, a story with a score by Walter Hendl designed to introduce young people to each of the orchestra’s instrumental voices.
It is thus wholly in the spirit of Margaret Wise Brown’s own protean creative project that composer-conductor Glen Roven now gives listeners of all ages these thrilling orchestral settings of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. For each work, Roven has wisely taken his lead from the author’s text, aptly choosing a human voice as the centerpiece of his poignant exploration of the Great Green Room of Goodnight Moon, which at heart is a lullaby; and pitting a solo violin (the incorrigible bunny) against the full force of the orchestra (the loving, all-knowing mother, the universe at large) in the brilliantly variegated epic battle of wits that is The Runaway Bunny. There can be little doubt that Brown herself would have been pleased with what the composer has done. For everyone else, these companion works re-open two childhood classics we thought we knew, and invite us to re-experience them in all their eloquent simplicity, tenderness of heart, and joy in what Brown once called the “first wonder at the world.”
Leonard S. Marcus is the author of the biography Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon and is one of the world’s leading writers about children’s books and the people who create them.
The third work is a setting of another Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s masterpieces, GOODNIGHT MOON in a sensitive fashion by Glen Roven for voice and piano. Roven is at the keyboard and the fine baritone soloist is Mark Stone. Here the entire work is sung by the soloist, though there is a later version on the CD there is a setting of the story for GPR Festival Choir, equally effective but in a different manner.The recording is very well produced (Glen Roven, Peter Fitzgerald and Richard Cohen) and the sound is superb. Adults will find these settings a pleasure as much as children will find them entry points into literature and fine music. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, November 12
When I was in high school, my boyfriend (now husband!) bought me a copy of Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Runaway Bunny.” Because I adored children’s literature–and he wasn’t too bad either–I treasured this charming story of a young rabbit determined to break free from his mother’s strong, yet caring grasp. After we had kids of our own, I relished the moment I could share this quietly beautiful, timeless tale with our girls. Because I can practically recite this story backwards and forwards, it has earned a well-deserved spot on their bookshelf. As much as I do love it, like any parent, who doesn’t tire of reading the same story over and over? (Ah, the curse of introducing your kids to it in the first place!) For any mom or dad who could use a bit of reprieve from all that reading comes a new audiobook with plenty of star power. This holiday season, GPR Records releases Catherine Zeta-Jones narrating “The Runaway Bunny,” Michael Douglas reading “The Story of Babar” and English baritone Mark Stone singing “Goodnight Moon.” The soothing voices of this Hollywood husband/wife duo are balanced by Stone’s rich vocals, creating a CD that will calm any crying babe and relax a frazzled caregiver to boot. Available on CD or as an MP3 download, we think it makes for a welcome gift that any young family will appreciate.
In a Nutshell: Hollywood turns into Dreamland as a handful of celebrated stars lend their voices to classic children’s stories.