On Sunday morning (25 January 2015) at 10.30 am, Child’s Play India Foundation will host a free screening of “Peter and the Wolf: A Prokofiev Fantasy” at Caritas Conference hall, St. Inez. Children and adults are welcome.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the both text and the music to this delightful children’s story soon after returning in 1936 to the USSR from his many years of travelling and living abroad. He was commissioned by the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow to write a new “symphony for children”. Prokofiev rose to this intriguing challenge, using his genius to complete this masterpiece in a matter of days. Some accounts say four, others fourteen days, but it is a remarkable piece of work. Prokofiev thought up the story himself, drawing upon memories from his own childhood.
It did not get off to a good start; it debuted on 2 May 1936, but, as Prokofiev put it, “[attendance] was poor and failed to attract much attention.”
Since then of course, it is ever popular with young children and music teachers alike, and is often found on CD recordings in combination with other children’s favourites: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
The text is spoken by a narrator, accompanied by orchestra. It is a great introduction to the instruments and the sound-world of the orchestra. A whole host of celebrities has stepped in as narrator over time: Eleanor Roosevelt, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Leonard Bernstein, Sean Connery, Richard Attenborough, David Attenborough, Mia Farrow, David Bowie, Itzhak Perlman, Prokofiev’s widow Lina and their son Oleg and grandson Gabriel, Christopher Lee, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Edna Everage, Sting, Ben Kingsley, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Sophia Loren, Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton among so many others.
Each character in the tale has a signature motif, played on a distinctive instrument or group of instruments. The ‘hero’ of the story is Peter, represented by a cheerful melody played by the stringed instruments of the orchestra: violin, viola, cello and double bass. He is a Young Pioneer, the Communist bloc equivalent of the Boy Scout. He lives with his grandfather in a clearing in the forest. One sunny day, Peter ventures out into the woods, leaving the garden gate open, so the duck (represented by the oboe) that lives in the yard waddles out for a swim in the nearby pond. He compares notes with a bird (represented by the flute): “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 (a furtive yet resolute tune played by the clarinet) stalks them both, until Peter lets out a shout, sending the bird scurrying into a tree while the duck swims out of reach into the middle of the pond.
Peter’s grandfather (played in the deep bass register by the bassoon) scolds Peter for his carelessness, but Peter is all bravado: “Young boys like me are not afraid of wolves”. The grandfather gets Peter back into the house and locks the gate. But the duck and the cat are still out.
Presently a “big grey wolf” (a sinister tune played in a minor key by a trio of French horns) does appear. The cat climbs to safety into a tree, but the panic-stricken duck jumps out of the pond, is pursued by the wolf, and swallowed in one great gulp.
Peter slips out of the house, taking with him a rope which he was fashioned into a noose to ensnare the wolf. With the bird as hid ally in distracting his quarry, he manages to slip the noose around the wolf’s tail.
A hunting party (woodwind theme, with gunshot sounds on timpani and bass drum) has been trailing the wolf and they raise their rifles to shoot, but Peter talks them into taking the beast to a zoo in a victory parade, headed by Peter, the bird, the hunters and the wolf, the cat, and a grumbling grandfather: “What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”
The story ends with the narrator telling us, “If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.”
The story has a lot of creative potential, and adaptations have included Walt Disney animation; a Dixieland band (with the part of the duck played by saxophone as Dixieland bands do not have oboe); a 1970s rock music version with Phil Collins, Manfred Mann, Alvin Lee and jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli among others; a Muppet version; and a Sesame Street version.
Conductor Claudio Abbado had recorded Peter and the Wolf with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1993 and wished to make a children’s film using the soundtrack and the muppets from the British satirical puppet show Spitting Image. It would be an expensive undertaking. In Spitting Image, political figures got several “appearances” in their muppet avatars, but the Peter and the Wolf characters would need to be specially created just for the film, and then have no further use. The soundtrack had other music as well, also by Prokofiev: his “Classical” Symphony; Overture on Hebrew Themes; and March in B flat Opus 99.
Director Christopher Swann cleverly weaves everything into this Prokofiev Fantasy, and ropes in Prokofiev himself who morphs into the Grandfather. The March begins and ends the film; the Overture becomes an old man’s (Prokofiev/Grandfather) recollection of old-world Russia; and the Classical Symphony becomes the perfect setting for a Musical Heaven, where all the composers the Prokofiev was both honouring and challenged by in writing the work, make cameo appearances: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner.
The narrator is Sting (the Italian version has actor-comedian Roberto Benigni doing the honours), and there is a fleeting Spitting Image appearance by our Zubin Mehta as well
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 January 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)