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.
As I was driving home the other day, my local classical radio station played a recording of the Colorado Symphony’s orchestration of the symphony that made me fall in love with classical music when I was just a tiny little child. Whether I first heard this at my hippie community college preschool program or at home, I have no idea. I do know that my mother, a kindergarten teacher, was a firm believer in music education and we had oodles of children’s books that came with narrated tapes. But the one that has stuck with me after all these years is Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 symphony, Peter and the Wolf (which you can listen to here).
Peter and the Wolf was specifically written for children, which is perhaps why it’s such a fantastic introduction to classical music. Not only do you get a sweet, simple symphony, but it’s specifically intended to be narrated. For children, it’s a joy to be able to follow along with the tale with a beautifully illustrated book in hand, though this is unnecessary as the various leitmotivs of the characters are incredibly evocative. The wolf’s deep french horns in andante molto were honestly terrifying to me, and you can just picture him stalking the boy in the meadow. In contrast, the bird’s flutes in allegro sound exactly like a bird flitting around the wolf’s head!
Peter and the Wolf is a very short tale of a boy, being warned against wolves by his concerned Grandfather. Peter then decides, with the help of feathered friends, to capture the wolf. What’s fascinating to learn later in life is that it was loosely written as a Russian propaganda piece for the Young Pioneers, a communist scout organization that preceded adolescent organizations like the Young Communists League. There’s nothing about the story that screams “COMMUNIST!” as it is quite firmly a children’s fable, but it does tell the story of man overcoming nature. This is, naturally, somewhat problematic given the very real crisis of climate change. There are other animals in the story, Peter’s accomplices in the wolf hunt, but they’re portrayed as domesticated, tamed (even a wild bird). But there’s also something strange about the fact that the wolf isn’t killed, but taken to a zoo to be displayed. I’m not entirely sure how to read that, as, on one hand, I’m a conservationist, and on the other hand, there’s something very exploitative about it. I shudder to extrapolate the story to a larger cultural context, frankly. However, the other intended message is that it’s ok to defy your elders, which I can’t entirely disagree with.
I decided to write this review not because this is the most magical of stories, but because it’s a truly magical experience to listen to a narrated textual tale interwoven with a beautifully orchestrated symphonic experience. I’m sure there have been others written in the same vein (I hope there are), but it’s such a fantastic introduction to how classical music can work to tell a story, how each instrument can work together to create the symphonic whole. This is part of why I firmly believe that music can be just as science fictional or fantastical as a book; it’s part of what makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind such a stunning film, and it’s part of why I’m currently in love with Destiny 2. So, this may seem like a strange choice for my Retro Childhood Review, but Peter and the Wolf is one of the most purely fantastical things that you can experience as a child or, even better, with a child in your life. Give them the gift of music AS story.
Peter and the Wolf
Written by Sergei Prokofiev
Originally produced in 1936