Sergei Prokofiev, is one of the greats. He was a well known Russian, 20th century composer; often standard in classical repertoire, music history curriculums and people’s classical music collections. For children of parents who are fans of Prokofiev, one of his most easily recalled works is that of an orchestral piece, which combines and highlights the many colors of an orchestra with narrative story telling appealing to kids.
I am speaking of his deceptively cheerful work, “Peter and the Wolf.”
If you’ve never heard the piece before, of course I want you to be in the loop, so here is the first part as performed by the New York Philharmonic and conducted by the famed American composer, Mr. Leonard Bernstein himself. At the very least you will hear the narrative introduction, which explains the uniqueness of the piece from the start,
The piece turns 75 today, written in 1936, as articulately reported by NPR. It is an easily approached piece that has been recorded by a plethora of orchestras in countless styles and settings. The use of sound to match imagery and character of not only scene emotion but the animal and human characters themselves, transforms the entire experience into a seamless mnemonic device for children to acquire a familiarity with different musical instruments. With that kind of attraction and comprehensible style in hand, it’s no wonder children tend to retain concentration and intrigue during the piece’s performance.
The reason I said “deceptively cheerful work” before is because of the ironic, unfortunate reality behind the creation of Peter and the Wolf. Prokofiev brilliantly and rapidly composed the work in Moscow, where he had returned to after residing in New York for some time. However, the choice to come back when he did left Prokofiev right on the unseen heels of a slew of disasters that were about to befall him and so many of his loved ones, because of the drastic shifts in governmental influence and power during the late 1930s under Joseph Stalin. Peter and his animal friends did not gain a strong following in Moscow but actually brought America’s attention back to Prokofiev; where he had just been!
To make matters even more interesting, the iconic, lasting figurehead of children’s media and storytelling that is Walt Disney, took a liking to the concept and was one of Prokofiev’s biggest chasers when it came to working with the music. Disney had actually just explored the idea of mixing mediums of visuals and plots with instrumental music, upon releasing the orchestral-film Fantasia in 1940. With the decision to turn Peter and the Wolf into an animated film for Disney in 1946, Prokofiev’s originally intended destiny for Peter and the Wolf in Russian children’s theatre was bolstered in positive stride 1000 fold by having his work cemented alongside one of the most associated names in children’s storytelling, who has continued to strive for family oriented works to the present day.
Prokofiev did compose post-Peter and Co., and thankfully so, since the man was aiming to bring some happiness to younger audiences. It’s just interesting how life plays out, as the place he was longing to return to did not receive him, his family or his creativity. He was “welcomed” back with a deteriorating, oppressive, slaughtering society and composing (as NPR puts it,) “in the worst of times.” Though because he was there just long enough to receive that one commission request, histories of impressionable generations have witnessed and appreciated his work far beyond the potential of where it might have originally stopped if it was behind the walls of the former Soviet Union. Out of Prokofiev’s suffering came positive recognition on a demographic and worldwide scale.