Peter and the Wolf

Sergey Prokofiev

Peter and the Wolf

Op. 67 • “Peter En De Wolf”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, for narrator and orchestra, was a commission from the Central Children's Theatre in 1936. The composer himself wrote the text, which tells the story of a young boy who manages to capture a vicious wolf. The piece is remarkable for many reasons, but perhaps most notably for its didactic scoring, designed by Prokofiev to introduce children to the sounds of orchestral instruments. The instrumentation is also important for the narration, since each character in the story is represented by a different instrument: the bird by a flute, the duck by an oboe, the grandfather by a bassoon, the cat by a clarinet, the wolf by three horns, and Peter by the strings. The entire work was composed in a single week (in piano score), and the orchestration was completed less than two weeks later.

Prokofiev's writing is intentionally direct and transparent, reflecting his desire to make the work enjoyable for children. His musical characterizations are broad and straightforward, from the delicate birdsong of the flute, to the thunderous kettledrums portraying the hunters' rifle shots.

The work is in three sections, loosely following a kind of sonata form. The opening section introduces the main characters, preparing the audience for the action to come. The middle section--the "development"--contains the most exciting action, beginning with the appearance of the wolf, his eating of the duck, and his eventual capture by young Peter. The final scene acts as a recapitulation, as the principal characters return for a final parade; here, Peter's opening theme returns transformed into a triumphant march.

Like most of Prokofiev's music, Peter and the Wolf features adroit thematic integration and development. Peter's theme, the dominant theme of the work, is stated at the beginning of the piece, and is then combined with other subordinate themes. This thematic blending is also closely tied to the dramatic action, underscoring developments in the story. Harmonically, the piece begins and ends in C major, but contains many sudden harmonic shifts, another important aspect of Prokofiev's style. Formally, though the piece does follow a loose sonata structure, it is by no means a case of textbook form; themes develop freely, harmonic direction is dictated largely by the action, and characterization assumes priority over any kind of academic musical construction.

Peter and the Wolf has long been a classic, loved by children for its vivid storytelling, and by adults for its gentle sense of humor and good-natured tunefulness. It was composed 22 years after a similar piece, The Ugly Duckling of 1914-1915, which also features humorous musical sketches of animals. It also bears comparison with Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which also seeks to acquaint children with the sounds of the symphony.

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