“Peter and The Wolf” Premieres (1936)

On May 2, 1936, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time.  While not composed as an ecological treatise, the musical piece earns itself an honorary appearance in the history of conservation as one of the most beloved children’s compositions of all time—and it does involve several species of wildlife!

Prokofiev was a well-known composer when he took on the task of writing Peter and the Wolf.  He was asked by Nataliya Sats, the director of the Moscow Children’s Theater, to write music to accompany a narrative about a strong-willed boy who defied his grandfather.  The purpose was to introduce the instruments of the orchestra to young listeners.  Prokofiev was well-suited to the task, as he had composed several other children’s pieces.  However, he rejected the text provided to him, instead writing his own story.

Sergei Prokofiev, circa 1918

The hero is Peter, a Pioneer—the Soviet equivalent of a Boy Scout—who, against his grandfather’s warning, ventures into the woods with his companions: a duck, a bird and a cat.  They meet a wolf who eats the duck and then—but you all know the story.  The story is, in fact, adapted from the Russian folk tales of the young and resourceful Ivan Tsarevich, who tangles with all manner of creatures from wolves to firebirds to magical lions and frogs.

Peter and the Wolf moves on from traditional folk tales to more modern lessons appropriate for students of the soviet movement.  First is the lesson that the old established regimes—in the person of a grumpy grandfather—must make way for the ways of adventurous, questioning and independent Bolsheviks like Pioneer Peter.  Second, however, is the lesson that mastery over nature is part of the soviet ideal.  The wolf loses in this narrative, trapped by the cunning Peter and hauled off to the zoo in a military-style parade.

I prefer a more nuanced interpretation.  Consider the various relationships that we can observe between humans and nature.  Peter wants to experience nature instead of being trapped inside the domesticated confines of a fenced farmstead.  But he takes with him his humanized animal friends, complete with names—Sasha, Sonia and Ivan.  The food web is displayed as the wolf eats Sonia.  Fear of the danger of nature is the underlying premise of the narrative, but that danger is overcome as both Peter and the hunters demonstrate their domination over nature when they capture the wolf.  But human kindness is again displayed as instead of killing the wolf, it is saved for a zoo or, in some later versions, banished back to the wilderness.  Oh, and along the way, Sonia escapes unharmed!

Peter and the Wolf is believed to be the most performed and recorded piece of classical music ever written.  More than 400 recording are available.  Most serious and not-so-serious actors have jumped at the chance to narrate the piece, including Sting, Patrick Stewart, Sophia Loren, Sean Connery, Captain Kangaroo, William F. Buckley, Allan Sherman and Weird Al Yankovic.  Prokofiev was so mesmerized by the project that he wrote it in just one week.  As his biographer related, “That he never forgot what it meant to be a child, and how children think, is evident in the playful but never condescending music he wrote for them, most of all the phenomenally successful ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ written when Prokofiev was a boy of forty-five.”

Comedian Art Carney and the puppets of Bil Baird in 1958, preparing for a production of Peter and the Wolf (photo by Associated Press)

References:

Historical Boys Uniforms.  Young Pioneers.  Available at:  http://histclo.com/youth/youth/org/pio/pioneer.htm.   Accessed May 1, 2017.

Morrison, Simon.  2010.  The People’s Artist:  Prokofiev’s Soviet Years.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.  512 pages.  Accessed May 1, 2017.

Russian Crafts.  Ivan Tsarevitch and the Gray Wolf.  Available at:  https://russian-crafts.com/tales/ivan_tsarevitch.html.  Accessed May 1, 2017.

Smith, Tim.  2008.  Essay:  Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”  Public Broadcasting System, Great Performances.  March 26, 2008.  Available at:  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/peter-the-wolf-essay-prokofievs-peter-the-wolf/27/.  Accessed May 1, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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