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Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Peter and the Wolf

We take it for granted that composers can write what they want, although if they wish to make a living from composing they must write what people will pay to hear. But the thing is, they can choose. Try to imagine what life was like for composers in the Soviet Union of the 1930s: roughly speaking, it was like this, “Follow the guidelines of our ‘Socialist Realism’, or you will be taken out and shot”. But don’t laugh - that’s exactly what happened to some of them. Some strong-willed composers resisted this terrible attack on their artistic freedom - but not openly! Prokofiev found that he could get away with a lot by writing music for films and stage plays, where he could hide his “sins” behind the dramatic demands of the story-lines. 

In 1936, in the midst of a host of such theatrical works, he was asked (though he couldn’t say “no “) by the Central Children’s Theatre to compose a new “symphony” especially for children. The idea was to “cultivate musical tastes in children from the first years of school”. By “musical tastes”, of course, they meant their sort of “musical tastes”, and not the sort that would get you shot when you grew up! In the span of just four days, Prokofiev worked a miracle. 

He set the story of Peter and the Wolf to music, using particular instruments and tunes to represent the characters in the tale. This was all very fine, educational and entertaining. But, like Peter, Sergei Prokofiev was a very bad boy: he tucked away inside the music many naughty things. Luckily, none of his “masters” noticed, and lots of children eventually learnt not only about Peter’s hair-raising adventure with the Wolf, but also (without even being aware of it), a fair bit about “artistic freedom”. Knowing this I wonder, is it always bad to be naughty? 

Even if you’re grown-up, you have lots of fun listening to the story. You can also have lots of fun listening to how Prokofiev pulls the strings of his musical “characters”. For starters, what do you make of the “characters” themselves? The flute becomes a really cool “little bird”. The oboe and its tune bring to mind a duck called Gemima rather than Donald, the slinky black clarinet just oozes “cat”, and the gruff bassoon grumbles “grandad” to a “T”. But, while you revel in the spectacular noise of the hunters’ rifles, you just might wonder which of them is toting what sounds like a six-inch naval cannon, and why! 

Then there’s Peter himself, whose introduction on the strings seems to paint a picture of sweetness and light: how many parents have a lad like this (and be ruthlessly honest with yourselves!)? But then, how many of them will look at you as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, doe eyes saying, “Would I do such a thing?” - and all the time hoping that you don’t spot the catapult hidden behind their backs? Well, listen to what Prokofiev does with Peter’s tune: even at the outset there’s a lurch in the harmony that would make any respectable parent - or grandparent - deeply suspicious!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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