Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’: A beloved piece of music for children
Art from the cover of a 1959 Soviet vinyl LP of 'Peter and the Wolf,' depicting Peter wearing the red kerchief of the Young Communists. | Melodiya

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is among the great composers of the 20th century. He was born 130 years ago, on April 23, 1891, in Sontsovka, Ukraine, into a rural family. Village life, with its peasant songs, left a permanent impression on him. His musical mother arranged trips to the opera in Moscow when he was a child. Prokofiev’s subsequent ten years of study (1904-1914) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, under Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, were a time of great artistic growth.

When the Tsar was overthrown in 1917, Prokofiev understood a new dawn had broken, and he wrote a vast quantity of new music. In the summer of 1917, he joined the Council of Workers in the Arts, a significant organization in Russia’s left-wing artistic struggle. Stranded for nine months in the Caucasus due to the civil war, he could only return to the newly named city of Petrograd in early 1918. Believing that music was not at the forefront of the Council’s activities, Prokofiev obtained official sanction to undertake a concert tour abroad.

From 1918, he began touring the United States and Europe as a pianist and conductor, remaining out of his country longer than originally intended, largely due to the blockade of the USSR. He stayed in the U.S. for almost two years and returned there on several occasions for concert tours. In France, Prokofiev came into close contact with avant-garde musical developments, an interest he had had from early on. He had already performed pieces by Austrian twelve-tone composer Arnold Schönberg in Russia. Prokofiev’s musical talent developed rapidly. He studied the works of Igor Stravinsky, particularly the early ballets, but maintained a critical attitude toward his countryman’s innovations, with whom he had a strained personal relationship. From 1922, Prokofiev spent over a year and a half in Ettal, Bavaria, before returning to Paris. In Germany, Prokofiev married the Spanish-born singer Carolina Codina, whom he had met in the U.S. and with whom he went on to have two sons.

The composer in 1918. | Bain News Service – Library of Congress / Public Domain

Prokofiev toured the USSR several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1936 he finally returned to his homeland with his family, where he became active in the Composers’ Union. Having met writer and translator Mira Mendelson in 1938, he left Carolina in 1941 and married Mira in 1948. Carolina Codina was arrested for “espionage” shortly after this, sentenced to 20 years in labor camps, and released in 1956. Yuri Andropov facilitated her departure from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Prokofiev was attracted by the work of modernist Russian poets, by the paintings of the Russian followers of Cézanne and Picasso, and the theatrical ideas of Meyerhold. In 1914, Prokofiev had met the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who became his mentor for the next decade and a half. All these influences impacted Prokofiev’s compositions while he lived abroad. Yet Prokofiev had not lost touch with the music of his homeland, and his ties to it had never been severed. His return home resulted in the composition of numerous masterpieces, including an opera based on Tolstoy’s sprawling novel War and Peace.

Peter and the Wolf

The most famous of all his works is Peter and the Wolf. Natalya Sats, then director of the Moscow Musical Theatre for Children, had commissioned this piece to introduce children to some of the orchestra and classical music instruments. Prokofiev had met Sats while taking his sons to her theatre in 1936. Prokofiev wrote a draft for the piano in a few days, finishing the orchestration nine days later, on April 24th. The composer’s opus 67 was performed to great acclaim, with Sats narrating, at the Pioneer Palace in Moscow. Prokofiev later said: “In Russia today, there is a great emphasis on the musical education of children. One of my orchestral pieces (Peter and the Wolf) was an experiment. Children get an impression of several instruments of the orchestra just by hearing the piece performed.”

‘Peter and the Wolf’ on stage in Toronto, 2007. | Alex Indigo via Flickr / Creative Commons

Prokofiev himself wrote the story, which a speaker narrates. First, the narrator introduces the characters with their musical motifs. In the course of the story, the narrator explains what is happening. If you know which instrument belongs to which animal, the music speaks for itself.

All the people and animals in the story are played on different instruments:

With their sweet, clear sound, Peter is represented by strings (violins, violas, and cellos). Their light, high timbre describes Peter as a happy and outgoing boy.

The timpani and trumpets play the confident, forceful hunters; the timpani and bass drum beats enact rifle shots.

The bird is characterized by the flute, fluttery, joyful chirping.

The slightly nasal sound of the oboe suggests the quacking, waddling duck.

The soft, warm tone of the clarinet evokes the velvety, elegant, and sneaky cat.

No instrument is better suited to the slow grandfather than the bassoon’s dark, thick low register.

Three French horns conjure the wolf. He is dangerous and lives in the forest; the French horn with its large, deep sonority suggests this perfectly.

Peter lives with his grandfather on the edge of a forest and understands the language of the cat, the bird, and the duck. The animals are his friends. One day, the wolf emerges from the forest and devours the duck in one gulp. Peter devises a plan to catch the wolf with the help of the bird.

We hear about Peter’s love for animals, grandfather’s worries, about birds arguing whether they should swim or fly, about the cat’s unsuccessful pursuit of the bird, about the arrival of the wicked wolf, and finally, how the bird and Peter catch the wolf, and everybody’s triumphal procession to the zoo.

The story begins one calm and sunny morning with upward moving leaps in the melody. Peter’s strings play a happy tune and the flutes (bird) trill. When the birds argue, the mood becomes louder and discordant, with a back and forth between the instruments. The wolf appears, chases, and catches the duck. The mood conveyed by the music becomes alarming and threatening, the rhythm becomes faster, and the oboe (duck) climbing in pitch with fright and discord ends loudly. Following this crisis, Peter and the bird attempt to catch the wolf with a lasso. The mood becomes anxious, a sense of breath being held as the music descends in pitch. Soft strings pause before the brass blares. When the wolf is caught, it is taken to the zoo in a jubilant procession with all involved. The mood is happy, and we hear trills, fast arpeggios on clarinet, strings, flutes, and a sense of happy skipping.

Sergei Prokofiev on a 1981 Soviet postage stamp. | Soviet Post / Public Domain

Just under half an hour in length, this musical fairy tale is a highly successful example of Socialist Realism, the newly promoted Soviet esthetic. It features a “group of heroes,” not an individual one. Peter and the bird need one another to defeat the wolf. Humanity and nature live in harmony—this is underscored musically. It is profoundly humanist: The adversary, the wolf, is not killed but put out of dangerous action and made available for educational purposes. There is an optimistic ending in that the wicked wolf is defeated and that the duck seems to have survived in the wolf’s stomach. And all this is expressed in the music: The group hero idea while the wolf is captured and in the ensemble of all the themes in the procession to the zoo. And the duck’s survival (or perhaps memory) resounds in a muted duck theme at the end—from the wolf’s belly, as it were.

It is a happy ending indeed, celebrating friendship, courage, and co-operation in the defeat of danger and evil.

Even if the haunting melodies seem simple at first glance, they are not. The musical story is vividly and skillfully interwoven in word and sound, action, and musical gesture, including many masterful tone paintings. Listeners learn that music can tell its own story once you understand that themes can represent characters that are repeated initially until you get to know them. They then develop into variations. They can interact, they can struggle, they can harmonize. This wonderful introduction to understanding classical music is not didactic, and it is by no means just for children. Its unique genius is thoroughly memorable and enjoyable.

Musical education on both the amateur and professional levels was one of the strongest features of the Soviet system for 70 years. Much of the enthusiasm for musical understanding and achievement can likely be traced to Peter and the Wolf. It remains Sergei Prokofiev’s best-known composition to this day.

Following are several great interpretations of this work. Here is Leonard Bernstein’s. Here’s another (with illustrations and ads!). And this most charming version by The Royal Ballet School.

 


CONTRIBUTOR

Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin. She has lived in Ireland since 1985, working as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She writes for Culture Matters and for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist party of Ireland.

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