Can a leopard change its spots? Can a composer write against type? Yes, even a committed modernist like Sergei, the “bad boy of Russian music”. Known for his unusual dissonances, angular melodies, and acerbic wit, all of a sudden he writes an enchanting symphonic fairy tale for children. But don’t be misled. This piece delights people of all ages. Who doesn’t love Sasha, Sonia, Ivan, and Peter?
Prokofiev composed Peter in 1936 on commission from Moscow’s Central Children’s Theater which he frequently visited with his children. The intent was to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra in a setting that would promote the virtues of bravery and resourcefulness. Prokofiev not only composed it within two weeks, but he also wrote the narration to go with it. The American premiere took place in 1938 in Boston with Prokofiev himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
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 played by all instruments, 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 sounds of the instruments during the performance of this tale.
According to Prokofiev, “If you listen very carefully at the end of the story, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.” That would make for interesting instructions in the score to the oboe player: “Play as though you had just been swallowed by a wolf.”