It’s been a season of exploring classical music at The Children’s School, and our students have been enraptured recently by Peter and the Wolf, a “symphonic fairy tale” that Sergei Prokofiev composed specifically for children. The version we have been listening to is played by the Philadelphia Orchestra and narrated by David Bowie—so the children have been getting an earful, both of the sounds of the symphony and of Bowie’s voice.
Prokofiev had two young sons when he created this piece in 1936, and he had a keen sense of what would interest them. He came up with a story about brave boy named Peter who stands up to his grandfather, a frightening wolf and an aggressive party of hunters. Peter’s grandfather and his three pets—Bird, Cat and Duck—are each represented by different woodwind, so children learn to recognize each instrument’s characteristic sound.
A genius at suggesting action, emotion and personality through music, Prokofiev created a score that is a nearly synesthetic experience. There are pauses in Peter and the Wolf for the narrator to tell what happens next, but the spirit of the characters is captured by the music. Peter is represented by a cheerful, confident theme on strings. His scolding grandfather is depicted as a bit of a buffoon, through clumsy octave jumps on the bassoon. The Bird is a flute, with flitting trills and runs. The Cat, played by a clarinet, moves con eleganza in staccato leaps that become accelerando and precipitato when it scrambles up a tree. The approach of the Wolf (French horns) is made more chilling with cymbals and brass. When the Wolf swallows the unlucky Duck, the cellos, playing doloroso, create an unearthly lament. The hunters arrive in a noisy, chaotic march, punctuated by careless gunfire (booming drums). And in the final bars of the piece, generations of children have been relieved to hear the muffled quacking of the Duck (an oboe) inside the Wolf, still alive.
Thanks to its enchanting leitmotifs, Peter and the Wolf has become the most recorded piece of music in the classical canon. David Bowie is just one of many famous people to read the text, among them Patrick Stewart, Sharon Stone, Sean Connery, Sting and Eleanor Roosevelt. Its evocations of exhilaration and dread have become so iconic, they are often borrowed by other artists. In Blade Runner 2049, Peter’s theme signals each appearance of Joi, a character who is a hologram. And the story and melodies were reworked to harrowing effect in the TV series Fargo.
As touchstones like Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland show, works created to delight children have just as much to offer adults. Peter and the Wolf is such a masterpiece and well worth listening to together!