Or of course to introduce yourself to classical music.
Peter and the Wolf (Russian: Петя и волк, Petya i volk), Op. 67, is a composition written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 in the USSR. It is a children’s story (with both music and text by Prokofiev), spoken by a narrator accompanied by the orchestra.
In 1936 Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by Natalya Sats and the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow to write a new musical symphony for children. The intent was to cultivate “musical tastes in children from the first years of school”. Intrigued by the invitation, Prokofiev completed Peter and the Wolf in just four days. The debut on 2 May 1936 was, in the composer’s words, inauspicious at best: “…[attendance] was poor and failed to attract much attention”.
Peter and the Wolf is scored for the following orchestra:
- Woodwinds: a flute, an oboe, a clarinet in A, and a bassoon
- Brass: 3 horns in F, a trumpet in B-flat, and a trombone
- Percussion: timpani, a triangle, a tambourine, cymbals, castanets, a snare drum, and a bass drum
- Strings: first and second violins, violas, violoncellos, and double basses
Each character in the story has a particular instrument and a musical theme:
- Bird: flute
- Duck: oboe
- Cat: clarinet
- Grandfather: bassoon
- Wolf: French horns
- Hunters: woodwind theme, with gunshots on timpani and bass drum
- Peter: string instruments
The duration of the work is approximately 25 minutes.
Peter, a Young Pioneer, lives at his grandfather’s home in a forest clearing. One day, Peter goes out into the clearing, leaving the garden gate open, and the duck that lives in the yard takes the opportunity to go swimming in a pond nearby. The duck starts arguing with a little bird (“What kind of bird are you if you can’t fly?” – “What kind of bird are you if you can’t swim?”). Peter’s pet cat stalks them quietly, and the bird—warned by Peter—flies to safety in a tall tree while the duck swims to safety in the middle of the pond.
Peter’s grandfather scolds Peter for being outside in the meadow alone (“Suppose a wolf came out of the forest?”), and, when Peter defies him, saying that “Boys like me are not afraid of wolves”, his grandfather takes him back into the house and locks the gate. Soon afterwards “a big, grey wolf” does indeed come out of the forest. The cat quickly climbs into a tree, but the duck, who has excitedly jumped out of the pond, is chased, overtaken and swallowed by the wolf.
Peter fetches a rope and climbs over the garden wall into the tree. He asks the bird to fly around the wolf’s head to distract it, while he lowers a noose and catches the wolf by its tail. The wolf struggles to get free, but Peter ties the rope to the tree and the noose only gets tighter.
Some hunters, who have been tracking the wolf, come out of the forest ready to shoot, but Peter gets them to help him take the wolf to a zoo in a victory parade (the piece was first performed for an audience of Young Pioneers during May Day celebrations) that includes himself, the bird, the hunters leading the wolf, the cat and grumpy grumbling Grandfather (“What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”)
In the story’s ending, the listener is told that “if you listen very carefully, you’d hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.”