First of all, I am so sorry that it has taken me so long to post. Life occasionally has a tendency of interrupting the writing process. When I came back to the idea of picking up the blog again, I was not sure what piece I could possibly use to get back into the groove of things. What classical pieces have been rolling around in my head? What do I need from classical music right now? Art is an incredibly volatile and changeable thing, creating different moods and emotions while simultaneously being created by our moods and emotions. The music changes us, and our perceptions change the way we hear the music. Do I need something relaxing or high energy? Am I looking for high classical Mozart stuff or dadaist French fluff pieces? Well, I tried my hardest to come with the perfect answer: none of the above. I have chosen a piece that is instructional, interesting, and cerebral. It is also playful and young, exciting the inner child in us all and inviting us to flights of fancy. For my grand return to Classical Music for Beginners, I will discuss Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.
This piece is remarkable for many reasons. For those of you who have never heard it, you might be taken aback by the fact that the whole thing is narrated. Prokofiev actually wrote the narration along with the music, and conductors will often narrate the piece while directing the orchestra in a live performance. This particular narration, however, was recorded by the incomparable Boris Karloff.
This piece was written for the Central Children’s Theater in Moscow as an attempt to get children more interested classical music, and it premiered in 1936, smack dab in the middle of the contemporary era. While it was not received to fanfares and unending applause during its premiere performance, it has since become a staple in classical repertoire, not only for children, but for adults as well.
At the beginning of the recording, the narrator informs us that certain animals and characters will be played by specific instruments or groups of instruments. For example, the duck (in a rather onomatopoeic manner) is played by the oboe, an instrument famous for its squeaky timbre or voice. Peter, the main character in the story is played by a string quartet (violin I, violin II, viola, and bass). This mirrors the methods of a traditional symphony as the melodies and main themes of symphonies are usually given to the strings. However, the tradition of giving every character its own special instrument was a relatively new one. Russian composers are known for their unique and creative instrumentation (using the right instrument for the right job), and this piece marks one of the greatest achievements in instrumentation and its uses in storytelling.
The piece starts out very simply with the characters and their own separate themes. First we hear Peter walking down the road to his string quartet, and then the bird flute is introduced, playing out his entire theme. What occurs next is remarkable and subtle. Peter’s theme slows down as he stops to admire and play with the bird, and the bird’s flute song intermingles with Peters at 4:10, both of them together creating an entirely new song, the song of Peter and the bird.
The duck enters at about 5:00, and we hear it join Peter and the bird, with little flits of the flute and a gentle, reassuring melody from the strings. It is apparent they are all friends. The duck and bird then argue and play, one in the water and one on the ground. We hear their little webbed feet skip across the water and ground. So the story continues, with the introduction of the cat marking the trading off of voices instead of intermingling. The cat blats at the bird and the bird answers angrily as they play out hunter and hunted.
At 11:15, the wolf appears in all of its French horn glory. This is the only brass instrument used to portray a character in the whole piece. Compared to the lightness of the strings and playful attitude of the woodwinds (duck, bird, cat, and grandfather), this instrument seems entirely out of place. The wolf quickly devours the duck. At 13:00 minutes, we hear the duck’s theme played again, but with a mournful background of strings, like a eulogy.
At 18:00, following the trapping of the wolf with a noose around its tail, we hear some of Prokofiev’s signature dissonance, which has been so absent from the rest of the piece. The wolf struggles to survive, completely at odds with all of our other heroes, blaring and grating against their joyous harmonies.
At 19:30, the hunters appear, and their theme is quite different from the others in that it involves more than one set of instruments. They are portrayed with woodwinds (signaling to the listener that they are good men) and the rumbling timpani of gunfire (signifying that they are still dangerous and quite well-armed).
At about 22:00 minutes, we begin a joyful procession, which Peter, in all of his newfound glory, leads. He is now portrayed with triumphant brass instruments, like a march. The hunters follow with the wolf, still contrary as ever to the themes of the other characters. At 24:00 minutes, we hear the joyful march of a proud Peter at the line, “What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf?” He is portrayed with trumpets and snare drums; everyone is so proud of Peter.
And just in case this piece was getting a little bit too serious, we end on a joke.
I am not going to go into detail about the composer or compositional techniques. That would defeat the purpose. This is Peter and the Wolf; it is about playful instrumentation and education. It brings out the child in me, and I hope it does for you as well.