It’s one of the most often performed works in the orchestral repertoire, and with good reason: Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf may be the most ingeniously composed piece of musical storytelling ever written for children.
This month, the Nashville Symphony performed Peter and the Wolf for thousands of local elementary school students as the featured work on this season’s Young People’s Concert for 3rd and 4th graders. I had not heard the piece for a while. Over the last couple weeks as I observed our superlative orchestra performing Prokofiev’s masterpiece for rapt audiences of children, I thought about the unique power of music to invigorate and develop a child’s imagination.
Peter the Young Pioneer
Peter and the Wolf was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Soviet propaganda aimed at children in the U.S.S.R. It was intended to promote the Young Pioneers, a Soviet organization for young people similar to scouting organizations in other countries. The overall theme of the story – Peter capturing the wolf – represents the triumph of Man over Nature, and Peter’s grumpy but impotent Grandfather is symbolic of the older generation of recalcitrant Bolsheviks that Prokofiev’s Communist Party contemporaries sought to discredit and trivialize. Peter’s character embodies and displays Young Pioneer virtues such as fearlessness, resourcefulness, and pluck.
In 1936, Sergei Prokofiev was 45 years old and well-established as a prominent composer of international status. He had just returned to live in Moscow with his family after many years of living abroad in the United States and Europe. Natalya Sats, the director of the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow (now the Natalya Sats Musical Theater) befriended Prokofiev and commissioned him to write a symphonic work to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra. Prokofiev disliked the initial text he was provided, and in the end wrote the story himself. He completed the piece at lightning speed in a few weeks in April 1936, and it was given its debut on May 2 at the Moscow Conservatory. Prokofiev himself conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Peter and the Wolf‘s U.S. debut in 1938.
More than 80 years later, Peter and the Wolf is an internationally celebrated children’s classic. Prokofiev’s most often performed work, it has been adapted for or referenced by a multitude of media, and has been recorded many times with a variety of celebrity narrators that is perhaps unrivaled by any other work. A few who stand out (to me) include
- Basil Rathbone (1941) with Leopold Stokowski and the “All American Youth Orchestra”
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1950) with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
- Alec Guiness (1953) with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra
- Boris Karloff (1957) with Mario Rossi and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra
- Sean Connery (1965) with Antal Doráti and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- David Bowie (1978) with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra
- Christopher Lee (1989) with Yehudi Menuhin and the English String Orchestra
- Sophia Loren (2003) with Kent Nagano and the Russian National Orchestra
(click on each link above to hear the recording!)
Walt Disney met Prokofiev in 1938, and considered including Peter and the Wolf in Fantasia, which was released in 1940, but in the end it was not included. Instead, Disney released an animated short version in 1946 which, in typical Disney fashion, introduced many changes to the original – right down to the music itself.
Walt Disney’s 1946 animated short Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Sterling Holloway
In 1958, a puppet stop motion animated version was produced by Soyuzmultfilm, the largest Soviet animation studio, which was founded in 1936, still exists today, and is now owned by Russia’s Ministry for Culture. This short film may be seen here on YouTube. Like the Disney version, it also introduces several changes to the story. The music however, remains faithful to Prokofiev’s original score, despite many cuts (it is less than 10 minutes long).
There are many other video versions. An amusing production that also features the original music is Peter and the Wolf: A Prokofiev Fantasy (1993) by the satirical British puppet workshop Spitting Image:
Peter and the Wolf: A Prokofiev Fantasy (1993) by Spitting Image Workshop, featuring Sting as narrator with Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
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I don’t remember when I first heard Peter and the Wolf, but I was very young. For me like many others, there is a particular recording of Peter that I listened to over and over again during formative years of my childhood that has remained my personal “gold standard” to which I compare all other recordings, because it was through this recording I first became familiar with the story and the music. In my case, this recording was Leonard Bernstein’s 1960 recording with the New York Philharmonic.
Leonard Bernstein narrates and conducts the New York Philharmonic’s recording of Peter and the Wolf (1960)
This week, when I listened to this recording for the first time in decades, I was struck by how familiar it was, and by how the the warmth and good humor in Bernstein’s voice and his approach to the narration – as well as the masterful performance by the New York Philharmonic – evoked imagery of the characters and the story from the interior world of my own childhood. It may have been more than 40 years since I heard this recording. It is likely that this is the first orchestral work that I became intimately familiar with through repeated listenings – and also it was through this work that I began to recognize the timbres of different instruments with clarity and confidence as a young child.
Young People’s Concerts
Even after more than 80 years since its creation, Peter and the Wolf is still one of the most creative and effective compositions in the classical canon. Throughout the work, Prokofiev does a masterful job of using the instruments in the orchestra to paint the world described by the narrative. However, like in a great opera, the orchestra in Peter and the Wolf does not merely accompany the text but rather deepens our emotional connection and understanding of the story—thus captivating our attention and allowing our imaginations to create a more vibrant depiction of the fairy tale.
~ Enrico Lopez-Yañez
Assistant Conductor, Nashville Symphony
Like many symphony orchestras, the Nashville Symphony produces a series of Young People’s Concerts designed for specific age groups each year. This is our “flagship” education program: we reach thousands of students through these concerts each season, many of whom are both hearing our orchestra and attending a concert at Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the first time. Designing and producing these events is one of my responsibilities as the Director of Education and Community Engagement (EDCE) here, in collaboration with other EDCE staff, Artistic staff, Marketing, Communications, Production and Security staff, volunteers, interns, (occasionally) community partners… and of course, the orchestra musicians themselves. Our Young People’s Concerts – or “YPCs” as they are known in orchestra industry lingo – reach more students total each year than all of our other education programs combined: this program has the broadest “reach” of all of the EDCE programs in the symphony’s portfolio.
We produce 4 Young People’s Concert programs annually, each designed for a different age group:
- students in grades K – 2
- students in grades 3 – 4
- middle school students (grades 5 – 8)
- high school students (grades 9 – 12)
The Nashville Symphony performs each of these programs multiple times, with the exception of the High School YPC, which is a single performance conducted by Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero. Each of the YPCs for students in grades K – 8 is performed multiple times at Schermerhorn Symphony Center – with the goal of reaching as many students as possible. All of these concerts are FREE for students. (Tickets for adults – teachers and chaperones – are $10.) In addition, each year the symphony travels to sites throughout Middle Tennessee and performs Outreach YPCs for students – often at their own schools.
For our YPC program for 3rd and 4th graders this month, we performed 7 of these free concerts for children – 2 mornings each of 2 “back to back” performances at Schermerhorn, 2 performances for 4th grade students from Maury County at Columbia State Community College, and a performance at MNPS magnet Cresswell Middle Prep School of the Arts. More than 6,000 students from elementary schools throughout Middle Tennessee thrilled to hear the Nashville Symphony perform Peter and the Wolf – many of them hearing not only Peter, but also a live symphony orchestra performance for the first time.
When we were brainstorming ideas for this season’s YPCs over a year ago, it was natural to choose Peter and the Wolf as the theme for our YPCs targeted to 3rd and 4th graders this year. A “no-brainer”. Although Peter and the Wolf was featured on our Pied Piper Children’s Series of Saturday morning family concerts in 2016, it had been several years since the orchestra had performed it on a YPC. Peter and the Wolf is a foundational work of the standard classical repertoire, and we hope that every child in our community will have the experience of hearing it – and other works like it – performed live by their own Nashville Symphony.
We filled out the concert with two other standard works (Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee) that complement one of the themes from Peter: depicting animal characters with music. Nashville Symphony EDCE Program Manager Kelley Bell wrote a simple script, which was developed further in conversation with our new Assistant Conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez when he joined the symphony at the beginning of the season.
Often we collaborate with artists and nonprofit organizations from the community for YPC productions, and we were very fortunate to engage esteemed Nashville actress and theater professional Nettie Kraft to narrate Peter and the Wolf this month. Nettie is an accomplished stage, film, and television actress with a multitude of credentials, including Artistic Director of Verge Theater Company, adjunct professor of theatre at Belmont University, and dialect coach for 4 seasons of the CMT television show Nashville.
Music and the Power of the Imagination
Narrating Peter and the Wolf has been such a joy! I tell stories for a living in varied forms but to be on stage with the symphony was truly unique. I can “see” the little bird perfectly embodied in the notes of the flute. The power of a wolf’s shoulders and the gravitas in his walk played by the French horns gives me such a sense of foreboding. I know the students understand the story viscerally as they wiggle during the exciting parts and laugh at the argument between the duck and bird. What a great experience for a child, to use music to grow and support their imaginations and emotional vocabulary!
~ Nettie Kraft
As I listened to several performances of Peter and the Wolf during these YPCs – either sitting in the hall or backstage in the wings at an outreach concert, I was moved and impressed. The piece itself is masterfully constructed – the way that Prokofiev composed it is ingenious and evocative of so many aspects of the story. When the duck and the bird are arguing, the duet between the oboe and the flute is agitated and petulant, yet neither part strays far from the original character theme assigned to that instrument. When the horn trio plays to signal the entrance of the wolf, the effect is menacing and creates a great sense of drama. The strings carry the story portraying Peter’s sunny and can-do disposition throughout.
To me, the most remarkable thing about Peter and the Wolf is how strongly the simple combination of the music and the narrated story conjures up such a riot of images and feelings in my adult imagination – still at my age! No wonder that as I watched thousands of children marvel at these performances over the last two weeks, they sat riveted, transfixed by the drama unfolding in their imaginations.
We presented these performances without any props, images, costumes. Yet even without any of these supports, I observed hundreds of 8 – 10 year-olds at a time – in several cases over 1500 children at once! – completely absorbed in listening to the story and narration. It was miraculous.
Each of these children was enthralled with the story unfolding within his or her imagination. I believe that this power of music to connect our outer world of experience, relationships, and activity, with our inner world of thought, feeling, and imagination is at the heart of why music is so crucial as a robust component of every child’s education. Music provides children with an unparalleled opportunity to develop the power of imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.
Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, p. 97 (1931)
A focused, directed imagination – not mere daydreaming, but the creative activity of the attention within the mind – is the foundation upon which the child’s future learning is built. And music is one of the most powerful, flexible, and joyful tools we have to stimulate and develop the imagination, as was so clear to see this month as I watched thousands of children recreate the story of Peter and the Wolf for themselves, with a little help from the Nashville Symphony.