Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67, a ‘symphonic fairy tale for children’, is a musical composition written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936. The narrator tells a children’s story, while the orchestra illustrates it. It is Prokofiev’s most frequently performed work, and one of the most frequently performed works in the entire classical repertoire. It has been recorded many times.
In 1936, Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by Natalya Sats, the director of the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow, to write a musical symphony for children. Sats and Prokofiev had become acquainted after he visited her theatre with his sons several times. The intent was to introduce children to the individual instruments of the orchestra. The first draft of the libretto was about a Young Pioneer (the Soviet version of a Boy Scout) called Peter who rights a wrong by challenging an adult. (This was a common theme in propaganda aimed at children in the USSR at the time.) However, Prokofiev was dissatisfied with the rhyming text produced by Antonina Sakonskaya, a then popular children’s author. Prokofiev wrote a new version where Peter captures a wolf. As well as promoting desired Pioneer virtues such as vigilance, bravery and resourcefulness, the plot illustrates Soviet themes such as the stubbornness of the un-Bolshevik older generation (the grandfather) and the triumph of Man (Peter) taming Nature (the wolf).
Prokofiev produced a version for the piano in under a week, finishing it on April 15. The orchestration was finished on April 24. The work debuted at a children’s concert in the main hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Moscow Philharmonic on 2 May 1936. However, Sats was ill and the substitute narrator inexperienced, and the performance failed to attract much attention. Later that month a much more successful performance with Sats narrating was given at the Moscow Pioneers Palace. The American premiere took place in March 1938, with Prokofiev himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Boston with Richard Hale narrating. By that time Sats was serving a sentence in the gulag, where she was sent after her lover Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was shot in June 1937.
Peter, a Young Pioneer, lives at his grandfather’s home in a forest clearing. One day, Peter goes out into the clearing, leaving the garden gate open, and the duck that lives in the yard takes the opportunity to go swimming in a pond nearby. The duck starts arguing with a little bird (“What kind of bird are you if you can’t fly?” – “What kind of bird are you if you can’t swim?”). Peter’s pet cat stalks them quietly, and the bird—warned by Peter—flies to safety in a tall tree while the duck swims to safety in the middle of the pond.
Peter’s grandfather scolds him for being outside in the meadow alone (“Suppose a wolf came out of the forest?”), and, when he defies him, saying: “Boys like me are not afraid of wolves”, his grandfather takes him back into the house and locks the gate. Soon afterwards “a big, grey wolf” does indeed come out of the forest. The cat quickly climbs into a tree, but the duck, who has jumped out of the pond, is chased, overtaken, and swallowed by the wolf.
Peter fetches a rope and climbs over the garden wall into the tree. He asks the bird to fly around the wolf’s head to distract it, while he lowers a noose and catches the wolf by its tail. The wolf struggles to get free, but Peter ties the rope to the tree and the noose only gets tighter.
Some hunters, who have been tracking the wolf, come out of the forest ready to shoot, but Peter gets them to help him take the wolf to a zoo in a victory parade (the piece was first performed for an audience of Young Pioneers during May Day celebrations) that includes himself, the bird, the hunters leading the wolf, the cat, and grumpy grumbling Grandfather (“What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”)
In the story’s ending, the listener is told: “If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.”
Prokofiev produced detailed performance notes in both English and Russian for Peter and the Wolf. According to the English version:
Each character of this tale is represented by a corresponding instrument in the orchestra: the bird by a flute, the duck by an oboe, the cat by a clarinet playing staccato in a low register, the grandfather by a bassoon, the wolf by three horns, Peter by the string quartet, the shooting of the hunters by the kettle drums and bass drum. Before an orchestral performance it is desirable to show these instruments to the children and to play on them the corresponding leitmotivs. Thereby, the children learn to distinguish the sonorities of the instruments during the performance of this tale. (by wikipedia)
And here´s a nive version with the great Peter Ustinov as narrator and Herbert von Karajan as the conductor of The Philharmonia Orchestra.
What a nicy musical fairy tale !
Peter Ustinov (narrator)
The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan
01. Peter And The Wolf (Prokofiev) (Part 1) 14.23
02. Peter And The Wolf (Prokofiev) (Part 2) 14.34
03. Toy Symphony (Haydn) 11.01