Musical Moment: Peter and the Wolf

Musical Moment: Peter and the Wolf
Image credit: Levi Manchak

D.T. Baker, ESO Musicologist and Music Appreciation Online Instructor

From rather inauspicious beginnings, Sergei Prokofiev’s modest orchestral work Peter and the Wolf has become likely the most common introduction for children throughout the world to the sounds of the orchestra. It was composed less than a hundred years ago, in 1936, when Prokofiev’s own children were 12 and eight years old. By his own admission, Prokofiev had become interested in music for children the year before, and had already written Music for Children, Op.65 and The Moon Goes Over the Meadows.

Living in Soviet Russia at the time, Prokofiev’s memoirs state, “There was a big demand for children’s music, and in the spring of 1936, I started a symphonic tale for children entitled Petya and the Wolf, Op. 67, to a text of my own.”

Yet the work’s first performance, he noted later, was poor, and he felt that the work was not off to a great start. But it soon became, along with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the most popular orchestral work specifically for young listeners. Part of its attraction, of course, is the simple yet exciting story of the young adventurous Peter and his animal friends, and their capture of a menacing wolf. Hundreds of recordings, featuring celebrity narrators from every facet of popular culture (actors, not surprisingly, but also dancers, singers, musicians, comedians – even athletes and politicians) have recited the story that Prokofiev himself noted was rather secondary to the work’s true purpose.

“The text was read during the pauses in the music, which was disproportionately longer than the text,” he wrote. “For me, the story was important only as a means of inducing the children to listen to the music.”

At the start of the piece, the audience is told that various instruments of the orchestra will represent different characters in the story, and moreover, that each character would have its own theme, repeated by that instrument to illustrate the story. In this way, Prokofiev hoped to enable his young audiences to distinguish not only the different sounds of orchestral instruments, but to follow the story as much by repeated use of themes as by the narrator’s words. At about 25 minutes’ duration, the tale is also as likely the perfect length for a single piece presented to the squirmy and easily distracted.

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s welcome return to live performance is pleased to present, as its first concert for young people in many months, this treasured classic. Cosette Justo Valdés conducts the work on Saturday, November 13 at 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM.

Youth Tickets are $15Find Tickets