The Wolf at the Door: Stalin and Prokofiev
Peter and the Wolf is one of the enduring favorites of children’s music. Generations of children have sat in rapt attention, listening to the tale of the plucky Peter and the scary wolf, while at the same time learning the basics of the orchestra. How ironic, then, that this benign classic, beloved of millions the world over, is actually the product of tyranny, repression and fear.
In 1936, Natalia Sats, director of the Soviet-sanctioned Moscow Central Children’s Theater, worked up the courage to invite the world-renowned composer and pianist Sergei Prokofiev to compose a musical work which would cultivate “musical tastes in children from the first years of school.” Prokofiev accepted and wrote the piano score for Peter and the Wolf (Op. 67) in a matter of days, with the completed arrangement coming a week or so later.
A poet friend of Sats ‘worked up a script, but Prokofiev found it unsatisfactory — he didn’t like its rhyming verse form — so he wrote it himself, drawing from a Russian folktale. The story goes basically like this: A boy named Peter, who is visiting his grandfather in the country, leaves the gate to the nearby meadow unlocked; a duck gets in and promptly starts arguing with a bird. Then a cat threatens the duck and chases the bird up a tree. Peter’s grandfather drags him back into the house; he’s worried about a local wolf, who promptly emerges from the forest and swallows the duck. Peter sneaks back to the garden, manages to capture the wolf with a rope; then some hunters arrive and they all bring the wolf to a zoo, followed by the grandfather and the cat.
Prokofiev scored the piece for a 15-or-so-piece ensemble, making sure to include every section of the orchestra: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Each character has its own theme: The bird is represented by a capering flute line, the duck by a remarkably forlorn tune on the oboe, the cat by a devious little turn on the clarinet, the stern grandfather by the bassoon, the wolf by three French horns playing an ominous theme, the hunter’s guns by large drums. As the main human character, Peter gets a more complex musical treatment than the others: a rippling string theme, clean and bright as a spring glade, with a subtle yet expressive harmonic turn that seems to suggest the boy’s impetuousness. Not only it is a nice little tour of the orchestra, but it’s also a perfect introduction to the concept of leitmotif (featuring some of the catchier examples you’ll find in the classical canon).
The first performance of Peter and the Wolf was on May 2, 1936; Prokofiev later wrote that the debut was “inauspicious at best” and the work “failed to attract much attention.” But then, a few days later, they performed the piece at a Russian arts festival attended by tourists and journalists from around the globe — Peter and the Wolf went down a storm, and after that, word spread quickly. The first recorded English version appeared only three years later, in 1939.
Prokofiev, a father of two, clearly had a soft spot for kids: he also wrote music for the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling” (Op. 18), “Music for Children” (Op. 65) and “Three Children’s Songs” (Op. 68) as well as music for Cinderella (op. 95).
But a fondness for children probably doesn’t fully explain why Prokofiev leapt at the opportunity to write Peter and the Wolf. Homesick after touring the United States and Europe for years, he had moved back to Russia, which was now nearing the depths of the Stalin era. He had composed demanding, arty music for years, but if he was to stay in the Soviet Union, he had to work under some strict constraints: de facto dictator Joseph Stalin had rigorously nationalistic ideas about art, which he felt should serve the state. And so in 1932 the Soviet Union officially imposed an entire style of art — called Socialist Realism — on Soviet artists in all disciplines. The newly formed, state-sponsored Composer’s Union declared, “The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality, towards all that is heroic, bright and beautiful… Socialist Realism demands an implacable struggle against folk-negating modernistic directions that are typical of the decay of contemporary bourgeois art, against subservience and servility towards modern bourgeois culture.” Or else: government censors scrutinized works of art and violators faced professional ruin, the Gulag or worse.
So writing some music for kids was a nice, safe assignment, and Peter and the Wolf duly fits the Socialist Realism specs to a tee: Peter is indeed a hero, the music is indeed bright and beautiful; it even incorporates Russian folk tunes and is virtually free of any “modernistic directions” that could confuse or exercise the lumpen masses. And yet there may be more to the tale than just a kid capturing a wolf.
Some read the tale as geopolitical allegory, with the wolf representing the looming menace of Nazi Germany, and Peter representing Russia (and perhaps more specifically, a Young Pioneer, a Communist version of the Boy or Girl Scouts), as he outwits his foe with the cooperation of his humble animal friends (the proletariat). Or perhaps the wolf is the exploitive bourgeoisie; the other animals must put aside their petty differences and personal desires in order to defeat the wolf, i.e., benefit the common weal. But perhaps the late-arriving hunters represent the inefficient Soviet bureaucracy, and Prokofiev managed to sneak in a dig at the Soviets after all.
It was hardly the last time Prokofiev sucked up to the Soviets, whom he privately despised. He wrote the Young Pioneers into a much later piece, Winter Bonfire, and most of his post-1936 work obediently toed the line. But his progressive artistic tendencies (and perhaps his private misgivings about the brutal Stalin regime) eventually got the better of him: later in life, Prokofiev was declared a “formalist” and officially censured by the Soviet Central Committee; he died in poverty.
Virtually all the great orchestras and conductors of the world have recorded Peter and the Wolf, and all kinds of famous people have narrated it: David Bowie, Dom DeLuise, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Sharon Stone, Peter Ustinov, Sophia Loren, John Gielgud, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dudley Moore, even Captain Kangaroo (with conductor Leopold Stokowski!), Australian drag performer Dame Edna Everage, Antonio Banderas (delivered en espaÃ±ol with the distinguished conductor Kent Nagano) and “Weird” Al Yankovic. There’s even a worthwhile 1975 prog-rock version that features English rock royalty like Phil Collins, Bill Bruford and Brian Eno, with narrator Viv Stanshall from the Bonzo Dog Band. (Much more on that one here.) And don’t miss jazzman Les Brown’s smooth-swingin ‘big-band prÃ©cis, “Peter Is a Wolf.”
I grew up on a version narrated by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic, but the best version I have yet come across is the 1959 recording narrated by Boris Karloff with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and I’m happy to say it’s on eMusic.
This version was recorded in the late ’50s, when the seventysomething Karloff was well past his salad days. Karloff might have played scary monsters and super freaks in the movies, but he was actually a sweet, soft-spoken man who donated generously to children’s charities, and that goodness comes through in his kindly, avuncular tone. Despite the prestige of the job, narrating Peter is ideally not a star-turn, something Karloff clearly understood, and his pleasant, straightforward approach only highlights the expressiveness of the instruments and themes, which is the whole idea. Conductor Mario Rossi articulates the themes perfectly, and the warm old recording only adds to the charm.
There are other great pieces of classical music for children — Britten‘s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Saint-Saens ‘Carnival of the Animals spring to mind. But if you’ve never heard Peter and the Wolf, you’re in for a treat; if you haven’t listened since you were a kid, listen again, it’s just as great as you remember.