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Teacher and Parent Resources for
Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf


On this page we’ve assembled background information and resources to help you prepare your child or students for the CityMusic Cleveland performance of Peter and the Wolf.

Read the concert program notes


BACKGROUND
   • The creation of Peter and the Wolf
   • Prokofiev the composer

THE MUSIC
   • Prokofiev’s musical characters – the themes in music notation and audio
   • The story

LINKS

RECORDINGS & VIDEO



BACKGROUND

The creation of Peter and the Wolf

Ever since it was premiered in 1936, Peter and the Wolf has introduced generations of children to the instruments of the orchestra. We owe its existence to Natalia Satz, the director of the Moscow Children’s Theatre, who believed passionately in presenting the very best theatre and music for children.

The Moscow Children’s Theatre
In 1935 Prokofiev first brought his wife and his two young sons to the Moscow Children’s Theatre to see an opera called The Tale of the Fisherman and the Goldfish. They came back the next week to see a play, and Natalia Satz joined the family in the box, very excited at having such a world-famous composer in her theatre. The Prokofiev boys enjoyed themselves and the family came back again and again. Satz began to dream of having Prokofiev write something for the theatre. “It was my greatest passion,” she wrote later, “to stimulate creative genius to add to the treasury of artistic works devoted to children.” She had in mind a fairytale for symphony orchestra that would combine music and speech and introduce children to musical instruments and their sounds.

Prokofiev recalls hearing an orchestra for the first time
Eventually Satz asked Prokofiev about his own first experience of an orchestra, and he told her about hearing the opera Faust for the first time when he was nine years old: “It made an indelible impression, of course. The music, the costumes, the action. Like all boys, I especially admired the sword fight. When I returned to the village, I wrote my first opera, The Giant – the words and the music. There was a duel in my opera too, of course, but the most important thing was missing – and orchestra. My cousin played the orchestral part on the piano, but it was not enough: the impact of all those instruments was unforgettable.”

An instrument and a theme for every character
With that memory fresh in his mind, Prokofiev was easily persuaded by the idea of a musical tale for children, helped along by a narration. Together with Satz, he decided that most of the characters would include birds and animals and that each character would be played by a single instrument. But the human character with many sides, would be played by a string quartet. The colors of the different instruments would give Prokofiev a chance to express the individual characters and their personalities, and each character would also have its own theme or motif.

Narration not poetry
At first Satz hired a poet – a woman who admired Prokofiev’s music – to write a scenario. It was all in rhyme, of course, and Prokofiev threw it out at once, explaining: “…the balance between words and music in a work like this is very delicate. The words must know their place, otherwise they may lead the listener’s attention astray…” In the end Prokofiev wrote his own narration, in his characteristic laconic style.

Grandfather joins the cast
In her memoirs Satz recalled suggesting one more human character:
“What if we add another character to our cast – the boy’s Grandfather? That’ll be another fine contrast: one is merry, lively and fearless, the other slow-moving and cautious, grumbling all the time: ‘Supposing you get into trouble – wha-at then?’” I said. I said that “what then” in a twangy old man’s voice. Prokofiev suddenly snatched up a sheet of note paper and cried, “Say ‘what then’ again, I liked your intonation.” The way he wrote it, the phrase came out as a perfect fifth – a long F, a short F, and a B flat. [P08] “Let’s have Grandad by all means,” Prokofiev said resolutely.

The first performances – a sensation!
Eventually the piece was finished and it was given a trial run for an audience of about a dozen children, with Prokofiev playing the music on the piano and Satz narrating. The children liked the piece, she recalled. “I could tell that at once by the way they listened. Children sometimes praise a work enthusiastically when it is over, but they fidget and chat during the performance. And here the little imps were sitting as quiet as mice, though the symphony lasted 24 minutes without a break.”
Prokofiev and Natalia Satz give Peter and the Wolf its first, private performance.

Prokofiev then finished creating all the orchestral parts in the space of a week – the whole thing had taken two weeks o write – and it was premiered on May 5, 1936 at a festival of Soviet art that included journalists and guests from all over Europe and America. Peter and the Wolf was an instant success.


Prokofiev the composer top


Born Sontzovka, Ukraine, 23 April 1891
Died Moscow, 7 March 1953

From child prodigy to modernist
Prokofiev was a musical child prodigy: he wrote his first piece at the age of five and his first opera (The Giant) when he was nine. He was a very talented pianist as well, and by the age of 13 he was studying music in the St Petersburg Conservatory. When he graduated in 1914 he was already notorious as a composer in the “modernist” style. But one of the reasons that he was and remains popular with audiences is that he combined the new modern idiom with an endearing quirkiness of style and a real melodic gift.

Four styles
Prokofiev said he had four “basic lines” or styles of composition. The first was “classical”; the second was a “modern” style in which he was searching for the harmonies that would express powerful emotion; the third was “motoric”, music with rapid movement and often brilliant virtuosity; and the fourth was “lyrical”, thoughtful and meditative. When he was young, his modern and motoric styles seemed to dominate, but later on he was recognized for his lyrical gifts.

Departure and return
Many Russian performing and creative artists left for the West after the October Revolution of 1917. Prokofiev surprised many people by returning to settle in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s. He was the only major composer to return, and what he found were new audiences flocking to concert halls. He said, “The time is past when music was composed for a circle of aesthetes. Now, the great mass of people in touch with serious music is expectant and enquiring…” The Peter and the Wolf project, composed in 1936, not long after his permanent return, must have appealed to Prokofiev’s belief in music for all people.


THE MUSIC top


Prokofiev’s musical characters

With the exception of Peter, who is given a whole section of the orchestra, each character in Peter and the Wolf is represented by a particular instrument.

Peter – the strings
The bird – flute
The duck – oboe
The cat – clarinet
Grandfather – bassoon
The wolf – three horns
The hunters’ rifles – timpani

The story top


Prokofiev invented the story and wrote his own narration for Peter and the Wolf. Although some recordings use new or revised versions of the script, most English-language performances continue to use the traditional translation of Prokofiev’s narration.

Now let’s begin the story.
Early one morning Peter opened the gate and went out into the big green meadow.
On the branch of a big tree sat a little bird, Peter’s friend. “All is quiet,” chirped the bird gaily.
Just then a duck came waddling ’round. She was glad that Peter had not closed the gate, and decided to take a nice swim in the deep pond in the meadow.

Seeing the duck, the little bird flew down upon the grass, settled next to her and shrugged his shoulders.
“What kind of a bird are you, if you can’t fly?” said he. To this the duck replied: “What kind of a bird are you, if you can’t swim?” and dived into the pond.
They argued and argued, the duck swimming in the pond, the little bird hopping along the shore.

Suddenly, something caught Peter’s eye. He noticed a cat crawling through the grass.
The cat though: “The bird is busy arguing, I’ll just grab him.” Stealthily she crept towards him on her velvet paws.
“Look out!” shouted Peter, and the bird immediately flew up into the tree, while the duck quacked angrily at the cat from the middle of the pond.
The cat walked around the tree and thought: “Is it worth climbing up so high? By the time I get there the bird will have flown away.”

Grandfather came out. He was angry because Peter had gone into the meadow. “It is a dangerous place. If a wolf should come out of the forest, then what would you do?”
Peter paid no attention to his grandfather. Boys like him are not afraid of wolves.
But Grandfather took Peter by the hand, locked the gate and led him home.

No sooner had Peter gone than an enormous grey wolf did come out of the forest.
In a twinkling the cat climbed into the tree.
The duck quacked, and in her excitement jumped out of the pond. But no matter how hard the duck tried to run…the wolf ran faster.
He was getting nearer and nearer, catching up with her, and then he got her, and with one gulp, swallowed her.


And now, this is how things stood: the cat was sitting on one branch of the tree, and the bird on another…not too close to the cat.
And the wolf walked round and round the tree looking at both of them with greedy eyes.

In the meantime, Peter, without the slightest fear, stood behind the closed gate watching all that was going on.
He ran home, got a strong rope and climbed up the high stone wall.
One of the branches of the tree, round which the wolf was walking, stretched out over the wall.
Grabbing hold of the branch…Peter lightly climbed over onto the tree.
Peter said to the bird: “Fly down and circle around the wolf’s head; only take care he doesn’t catch you.”
The bird almost touched the wolf’s head with his wings while the wolf snapped at him from this side and that.
How the bird did worry the wolf! How he wanted to catch him! But the bird was much too clever, and the wolf simply couldn’t do anything about it.

Meanwhile, Peter made a lasso with his rope and, carefully letting it down, caught the wolf by the tail and pulled with all his might.
Feeling himself caught, the wolf began to jump wildly, trying to get loose.
But Peter tied the other end of the rope to the tree,
…and the wolf’s jumping only made the rope around his tail tighter.
Just then… hunters came out of the woods,
…following the wolf’s trail and shooting as they came.

But Peter sitting in the tree said: “Don’t shoot! The bird and I have already caught the wolf. Now please help us take him to the zoo.
So there we are…Imagine the triumphant procession:
Peter in front.
After him: the hunters leading the wolf.
And winding up the procession, Grandfather and the cat. Grandfather tossed his head discontentedly: “Well, and if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”
Above them flew the bird, chirping merrily: “My, what a fine pair we are, Peter and I! Look what we have caught!”

And if you listened very carefully, you could hear the duck quacking inside the wolf, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.


LINKS top


Because Peter in the Wolf is a special piece of music that is educational as well as entertaining, the best introduction is simply to listen to it! Many recorded performances even begin by introducing the characters and their instruments and themes in isolation before the main story gets underway. Recommended recordings and video interpretations are listed in the next section.

Here we’ve listed links to useful and interesting resources online that will either help you prepare your students further or give you ideas for follow up activities after the concert.

INSTRUMENTS OF THE ORCHESTRA

The San Francisco Symphony’s “SFS KIDS” site has a great flash-based page for discovering the instruments of the orchestra.

IDEAS FOR LESSONS

From the Oakland East Bay Symphony, CA

From the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra, NJ
(Recommended for some of its suggested activities)

From Phil Tulga’s Music Through the Curriculum site
(Music audio is MIDI, so instrumental sounds are not completely accurate. Phil is a California-based educator.)


RECORDINGS & VIDEO top


There are many recordings of Peter and the Wolf and a huge number of leading actors and other celebrities have tried their hand at the narration. Following are just a few that we think are especially interesting.

Prokofiev’s Music for Children
With narration from Prokofiev’s son, Oleg, and grandson, Gabriel.
HYPERION CDA 66499

Peter and the Wolf narrated by Patrick Stewart
Together with Debussy’s ballet for children, The Toy Box.
ERATO 97418-2

Ben Kingsley with the London Symphony Orchestra and Charles Mackerras
Peter and the Wolf is joined by two other classics, Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas.
CALA CACD1022

Peter and the Wolf – soundtrack from the George Daugherty film
The animated film is narrated by Kirstie Alley. The recording also includes a performance of the music without narration (useful for some teaching exercises or for further creative activities).
RCA VICTOR 31869-2

Tatiana Nikolayeva plays piano music by Schumann and Prokofiev
On this recording Nikolayeva, a great Russian pianist, performs her own transcription of Peter and the Wolf for solo piano. It gives an idea of what that first run-through with Prokofiev at the piano might have sounded like.
MELODIYA 332132-2

If you're looking to by CD recordings, we recommend arkivmusic.com or amazon.com. Recordings of Peter and the Wolf are also available through the iTunes Store and other digital download sites.

Peter and the Wolf – Suzie Templeton film
This prize-winning animation from 2006 was nominated for a BAFTA and this year won the Oscar for Best Short Film (Animated). Using just Prokofiev’s music, without narration, it gives a powerful interpretation of the story with a quirkiness that would surely have appealed to the composer!

The film is available in the US iTunes Music Store
and a DVD release is available from Amazon.