Peter and the Wolf

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          Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich are the two composers who stood above the rest of those who labored during the years of the Soviet Union.  Unlike, Shostakovich, however, Prokofiev enjoyed part of his career living and composing in the West, returning to the USSR in 1936 voluntarily.  Like his compatriot, he must be counted as one of the great composers of the twentieth century, although unlike Shostakovich, his direct influence on composers outside of the Soviet sphere was minimal.  He was a virtuoso pianist, but who also composed from the beginning, graduating from the St. Petersburg Conservatory shortly before World War I.  His musical style was based in the Russian romantic tradition, but he established early on a personal idiom that was characterized by pungent dissonance, soaring lyrical melodies, a facile manipulation of motoric rhythms, and kaleidoscopic harmonic changes.  Part and parcel of his musical personality was an acerbic appreciation of satire, parody, and even the grotesque.

          Although he travelled widely early on, all the while he returned to the Soviet Union from time to time for extensive concertizing; his works were performed frequently there, and he always kept his Soviet passport.  He was never a political naïf regarding the life of artists under that political system, and it must be surmised that his eventual removal to the USSR was made with “eyes wide open.”   His musical language had been gradually moving to a simpler, more accessible style—a necessary condition for artists who wished to serve a collectivist state and appeal to the masses.  So, when he and his family arrived in Russia in 1936, he adapted readily to political requirements by composing works that addressed the necessary content of  “socialist realism.”   This primarily meant patriotic subjects, in a traditional musical style, that served political ends.  One aspect of the artistic demands of “socialist realism” with which Prokofiev evidently was in full accord was the emphasis placed upon music for children.  Of course, totalitarian states have always worked through children’s education as they build control of society, but on the surface, what’s wrong with writing entertaining, charming works for children?  Nothing, Prokofiev evidently thought, and upon his return to the Soviet Union in 1936 a series of compositions for Soviet youth ensued, including Peter and the Wolf.   Commentators have long seen the work as an allegory for the Soviet Republics’ uniting together to face the coming Nazi onslaught, as well as Peter, the good Soviet “Young Pioneer,” taking the lead from the old fogies of the adults of the past to push into a future dominated by youthful initiative.  All true, perhaps, but one doesn’t have to think of these things to enjoy this engaging little masterpiece that helps children to appreciate the riches of the voices of the orchestra.

          The work’s genesis stems from a commission by the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow for a symphonic work for its audience.   Originally, Prokofiev was presented with the story cast into rhymed couplets, but dissatisfied with this, the composer wrote his own narrative, and set it to music in only four days.  The première was not an especial success, being sparsely attended and not attracting much attention.   That eventually changed, of course, and Peter and the Wolf went on to become perhaps Prokofiev’s most famous work.

          The cast of characters is represented by music of great appeal and charm, and appropriately suited to each of them:  Peter by the winsome sound of the whole string section; the Bird by the flute (of course!); the Cat so slyly by the low register of the clarinet; Grandpa by the bassoon; the funny Duck by the oboe; the Wolf by the sinister trio of brassy, threatening French horns; and finally the percussion section provides the gunshots of the Hunters.   The narration makes the brief story perfectly clear, and the totally popular style of the attractive music suits the characters delightfully—what more could one ask?   Children and adults have always responded with warmth to this charming work.  The only tragic note lies in the pitiful honking of the duck trapped in the stomach of the Wolf at the end.

          Prokofiev went on to great success in the Soviet Union.  Never really playing his political cards, he managed to survive the incredibly difficult times during the 1940s by adroit artistic gamesmanship with the harshly repressive Stalinist state.  He never joined the Communist Party, and made few public statements.  He struggled to survive, maintain his artistic integrity and continue composing in an authentically personal style.  But, alas, the difficulties of the extreme, repressive measures beginning in 1948 ultimately got the best of him.  His death on 5 March 1953 ironically garnered little recognition—Joseph Stalin’s demise on the same date preëmpted the stage.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan