David and Art - Peter and the Wolf
One of the most beloved pieces of orchestral music in the world came from Russia almost 90 years ago.
86 years ago today one of the most beloved pieces of music of the twentieth century had its world premiere in the main hall at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. Its composer was Sergei Prokofiev, and rather than being a sweeping symphony or a heroic concerto, it was short piece aimed at children and told a story through different instruments. Prokofiev entitled it “Peter and the Wolf.”
He was commissioned by Natalya Sats, the director of the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow, to come up with a musical piece for children that could introduce them to an orchestra and teach them what the instruments sounded like. Prokofiev wrote it on the piano first and then orchestrated the parts afterward.
Peter, although you can’t tell from listening, is a Young Pioneer, something like a Soviet Boy Scout and in addition to imparting musical knowledge, the piece was designed to demonstrate to children virtues like courage, determination, and resourcefulness. The American premiere took place in March 1938, with Prokofiev himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It’s been a perineal crowd-pleaser and a favorite for orchestras large and small ever since.
Oftentimes orchestras will perform Peter and the Wolf with a famous narrator. The Waco Symphony performed it in 2019 with Henry Winkler in that role. Voices as diverse but equally distinctive as Sting, Patrick Stewart, Sean Connery, David Bowie have done so.
Eleanor Roosevelt recorded a version with the Boston Symphony in 1948. Viola Davis recorded a version with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last year. Lina Prokofiev, the composer’s first wife, narrated it with the Scottish National Orchestra for the 50th anniversary of the piece.
When Prokofiev was touring the United States the year of its American debut, he met Walt Disney in California. Quite naturally, Disney wanted to talk about making an animated feature from the music. He finally got it done in 1946, by which time World War II had ended and the relationship with the Soviet Union was becoming strained.
You may have heard me mention that Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Peter and the Wolf was what brought me into classical music and if you haven't heard me say that well you have now. That’s why I like his narration the best. Prokofiev said that the little piece was a present not only to the children of Moscow, but to his own children as well. Indeed, it is a present to all children everywhere, and even now, almost 70 years after Prokofiev’s death, it introduces children to the wonderful world of orchestral music.
Enjoy the full work here: