In 1936, shortly after returning to the Soviet Union after living in Europe for 18 years, composer Sergei Prokofiev created one of the world’s most memorable and enduring musical pieces: Peter and the Wolf.
Ever since, Peter and the Wolf has entertained children while educating them about the sounds of key orchestral instruments.
Here are a few notes on Peter, the Wolf, their creator, and how this charming suite continues to be adapted to the needs of today’s music students:
An instrument defines each character
In Prokofiev’s story, every character has a signature instrument and tune that define individual personality. Music teachers can help children learn to identify the four families of instruments the composer used in the piece: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
Peter is portrayed by a joyous leitmotiv from a string quartet. Peter’s animal friends are the bird, portrayed by a lilting trill on the flute; the duck, depicted through the waddling gait of the oboe; and the cat, who slinks through the story accompanied by the lower registers of the clarinet. The chugging of the bassoon portrays Peter’s stern and scolding grandfather, and the rolling kettledrums bring a group of hunters to life. A series of sinister blasts on three French horns conveys the menace of the wolf.
A rollicking, melody-filled adventure story
In Prokofiev’s original plot, Peter is a Communist Young Pioneer who lives in the forest at the home of his grandfather. When Peter is walking through the forest, he encounters his friend the bird flying through the trees, the duck swimming, and the cat stalking the birds. Peter’s grandfather comes out of the house to warn his grandson about the dangerous wolf that lurks in the forest, but Peter has no fear.
The wolf eventually comes slinking past Peter’s cottage and devours the duck. So Peter avenges his friend and captures the wolf. He struggles with his captive but ends up tying him to a tree. The hunters appear, wanting to kill the wolf, but Peter persuades them to take the wild creature to the zoo, borne along in a celebratory parade.
Peter and the Wolf earned quick success and is still beloved today by children, teachers, and parents. Prokofiev called on his memories of his own childhood for scenes and characters.
A composer’s life in light and shadows
Born in 1891 in what is now Ukraine, Sergei Prokofiev learned to play the piano as a child. When he grew older, his mother moved with him to St. Petersburg so that he might continue his studies with instruction at a higher level. He began his formal studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and became a skilled pianist, composer, and conductor.
As a young man, Prokofiev became a dedicated traveler, intent on soaking up a variety of musical styles on visits throughout Europe and even to the United States. After the devastations of the Russian Revolution and the First World War, he settled in Paris, but he missed his homeland so much that he returned to the Soviet Union in 1936. He composed Peter and the Wolf for the Moscow Central Children’s Theatre that same year.
As his career blossomed, Prokofiev studied artistic influences including Igor Stravinsky, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and modernist artists such as Picasso. His oeuvre includes compositions for opera, ballet, and film. His symphonies and his concertos for piano, cello, and violin are notable among his works, as are his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his music for Sergei Eisenstein’s revered film Alexander Nevsky.
As the Cold War began, Soviet authorities targeted the composer for exclusion from cultural life due to his supposed anti-traditionalist point of view. Because the United States feared Soviet aggression, Western audiences also cooled toward him. When he died in 1953—on the same day as dictator Joseph Stalin—few newspaper readers noticed.
Disney works its magic on the story
There have been numerous recordings of Peter and the Wolf since its debut. The most famous film version is undoubtedly the Walt Disney company’s animated short subject in full color. This film was presented as part of the 1946 feature-length compilation Make Mine Music, which included a variety of other cartoon shorts focused on making music education fun.
In the Disney version, the animals have names and distinct personalities: The bird is named Sasha, the duck Sonia, and the cat Ivan, and each character livens things up through comedic routines.
A beloved favorite in schools and theaters
Dozens of lesson plans about Peter and the Wolf have been created for students of all ages. Typical of these is one created for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In this program, students hear the story, then listen to musical excerpts to become familiar with individual characters and their accompanying instruments. This goal is to ensure that students will understand the storyline; be able to pick out each character’s musical motif and signature instrument; anticipate how each theme will sound in the composition; and identify individual instruments, as well as instrument families, by sound and tone color.
Local companies continue to stage imaginative productions of Peter and the Wolf as part of campaigns for music education. For example, Seattle Children’s Theatre put on a local playwright’s adaptation of the story in which an Emmy Award-winning musician recast Prokofiev’s classic musical motifs with contemporary music styles such as the Charleston, the tango, and the two-step shuffle. The creative team enhanced the production with puppetry, movement, and an expanded series of humorous incidents.