Poulenc: The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant read by Miriam Margolyes

In stock
Catalogue Number

A delightful set of circumstances combined to produce the beloved masterpiece, Babar. The journey began in 1930 when Laurent and Mathieu, sons of French author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff were told an enchanting bedtime story by their mother, Cécile. So moved were the young boys by the curious tale of the young elephant’s adventures, that they asked their father to create illustrations. The resulting book initiated a series that was to be the crowning achievement of Jean de Brunhoff’s short professional life, and that of his son Laurent, who added further volumes following his father’s death in 1937. The children have acknowledged that the story originated with Cécile de Brunhoff, who, feeling that her contribution was too small to be credited, requested that her name be removed from the publications.

In a heart-warmingly similar situation ten years later, Poulenc was spending time with the granddaughter of one of his cousins. Noting that she became bored with the music he was playing, Poulenc put Brunhoff’s Babar on the piano and began to improvise, to the great delight of the young girl. The musical ideas born that day were to simmer away at the back of Poulenc’s mind until he completed the work in 1945. It was premiered on French radio the following year.




Miriam Margolyes is the latest in the remarkable line-up of actors and occasional singers to tackle it on disc, and her new recording with Simon Callaghan is both genuinely delightful and probes the work's ambiguities in a beautifully understated way. She narrates it with admirable simplicity, without resorting to archness or affectation, but where she really scores high is the sense of wonder she brings to the tale she tells, which in itself is deeply affecting. Callaghan, meanwhile, plays it extremely well, and is nicely alert to its grace, humour and emotional shifts without over-exaggerating the comedy or veering towards sentimentality. He has great fun with Poulenc's excited depiction of Babar digging in the sand with a shell, and with the slightly delirious waltz to which he scoffs cake with his cousins Arthur and Celeste. But the passage in which Babar cries for his dead mother is really touching, and the closing nocturne is absolutely exquisite. It's a lovely performance, and highly recommended.




Anyone who grew up, as I did, on Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books will find this CD entrancing. For those unfortunates who missed this experience in their early childhood, Babar was a warm-hearted, public-spirited elephant whose elevation to the throne of a realm suspiciously similar to France, and whose gently socialist leadership of that country in war and peace, was made to seem the most natural thing in the world. Brunhoff was a French children’s book author and illustrator whose wife Cécile concocted the story of Babar as a bedtime treat for her two sons; the first Babar book was published in 1931, and it was followed by six further titles in the series. 

With their charmingly witty drawings, the books became a cult, and the composer Francis Poulenc was one of the army of fans. What we have here, thanks to Harry Potter actor Miriam Margolyes’s artistry and Simon Callaghan’s excellent pianism, is Poulenc’s delightful musical response. And as I listened to this recording, I found the original drawings reappearing in my mind with all their detail intact – extraordinary. It lasts just 30 minutes, but my god does it resonate.


  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★   The Independent


This is the first CD I have heard that was recorded under Covid 19-related 'lockdown' conditions; and let me say at once that it is a triumph for all concerned. The two acoustics used seem to be perfectly well balanced and co-ordinated, and the performance itself as well integrated as if the two artists had been in the same room.

It is always a delight to hear Jean de Brunhoff's story of the little elephant whose mother is cruelly shot, but who finds refuge in the home of a kind old lady before returning home to get married and become elephant king. And, once past some dodgy French pronunciation at the very outset, Miriam Margolyes is an ideal narrator. The story doesn't give her much scope to express her unique comic gifts, but she is warm, sensitive, not too fast, and strikes just the right balance between restraint and over-acting – witness, for example, the subtly piping overtones she lends to Babar's voice, or the precisely gauged hint of a superannuated quiver in those of the old lady and her elephant counterpart Cornelius. Above all, Margolyes never talks down to her audience, meaning that her performance can be enjoyed by children of all ages – and not just the very young ones for whom Poulenc first envisaged the music.

And what superbly judged music it is! Simple and improvisatory much of it may be, but it clearly meant a great deal to Poulenc. Nimbus's notes quote his biographer Hervé Lacombe as pointing to various parallels between the story and the composer's own life… At times it is quite astonishing how much vivid atmosphere and memorable melody he can pack into a short space…

Simon Callaghan is alert to all of these changing moods, and – like Margolyes – sounds fully inside his role. He eschews any unduly subjective emphasis or special pleading, but rather – as all good Poulenc interpreters do – palpably trusts the master's own unique instincts, however bizarre these might sometimes be. Callaghan's piano is warmly and clearly recorded.

Certainly, and by any standards, this CD is both richly enjoyable and – in its way – a life-enhancing tribute to the human spirit.

Music Web International – Classical Review


Jean de Brunhoff’s story of Babar the little elephant should be a part of everyone’s childhood, and Francis Poulenc’s superb score gives us all the joy of hearing it read out loud alongside sublime and entertaining music. Unlike melodrama type pieces, this is simple storytelling without overly dramatic overtones, and with a similar effect to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf though not with that piece’s thematic distinctiveness. The booklet notes for this release tell us that “Poulenc was spending time with the granddaughter of one of his cousins. Noting that she became bored with the music he was playing, Poulenc put Brunhoff’s Barbar on the piano and began to improvise, to the great delight of the young girl...”

Simon Callaghan’s excellent piano playing is set in the fine acoustic of Wyastone concert hall. He gets to the character and heart of the music without fuss; both with a great deal of expressive warmth and a colourful sense of action and drama. The wonderful Miriam Margolyes requires no introduction, being a national treasure of both the UK and Australia. Her reading voice is of course highly versatile, with just the right amount of emphasis and characterisation - filling our imaginations with the story and its protagonists, but with no need for mannered style or histrionics. The whole thing lasts for less than half an hour, but is the sort of thing you could listen to for much longer.

We are into ‘CD Single’ territory, but worth every penny. In lockdown or not, parents could do much worse than to buy both this and Jean de Brunhoff’s book ‘The Story of Barbar’, so that everyone can read along and enjoy the wonderful illustrations. Be aware, however, that there are some tragic moments to go along with all of the magical charm and festivities.


Music Web International - Classical Review


Babar the Elephant began as a bedtime story told to Laurent and Mathieu, sons of French author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff, by their mother, Cécile. The children begged their father to create illustrations for the story and the resulting book became the first in a series of hugely popular children’s stories, which are still enjoyed by children today. Francis Poulenc’s accompaniment to The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant was also inspired by children – he improvised some music to entertain the granddaughter of one of his cousins, and by 1945 he had completed the work, dedicating it to “my little cousins Sophie, Sylvie, Benoît, Florence and Delphine Périer; Yvan, Alain, Marie-Christine and Marguerite-Marie Villotte; And my little friends Marthe Bosredon and André Lecœur, in memory of Brive”  (Francis Poulenc). The result is an enchanting and engaging accompaniment to a favourite book of childhood, premiered by the composer himself in 1946.

In this delightful new recording on the Nimbus label, one of our best-loved actresses and raconteurs, Miriam Margolyes, narrates this favourite children’s story.  Her voice is familiar to many, and she is an instinctive and characterful narrator who brings both warmth and drama to the words.

“Stories are a human need and children love being told them….music enhances the experience” says Miriam Margolyes in an interview on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme. Poulenc’s music has a charming naÏvety which makes it instantly accessible, but it’s also colourful and varied, and the piano part has several stand-alone descriptive pieces such as Lullaby, Reverie and Nocturne, which contain some of Poulenc’s best writing for the piano.

For pianist Simon Callaghan, this recording marks the start of a project to record all of Poulenc’s piano music for Nimbus, and is “the best way I could imagine to start this off” (Simon Callaghan speaking on Radio 3). Here his playing is responsive and lively, with a delightfully sparkly timbre in the upper registers, and an evocative ponderousness of elephant footsteps in bass chords. He told me via Twitter that he and Miriam “had such a ball” making the recording, and this is certainly evident in the piano sound which feels so spontaneous and inventive, infused with drama, humour and tenderness.

This charming recording of a children’s classic is sure to keep listeners young and old captivated. Recommended.



© 2010-2022 Wyastone. All Rights Reserved.