Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest

Programme notes

Peter and the Wolf

Actually, the Russian director Natalya Satz should be given a statue. It was she who in 1936 encouraged Sergei Prokofiev to compose the musical fairy tale Peter and the Wolf. By doing so, she indirectly ensured that millions of children worldwide were introduced to the most important instruments of the orchestra. Satz directed the Children's Theater in Moscow and became friends with Prokofiev after the latter attended a performance with his two sons in 1933. She managed to ensnare the composer for an educational project around the multicolored world of the symphony orchestra. 

Prokofiev threw himself wholeheartedly into composing Peter and the Wolf. He himself wrote the libretto of the timeless story about the little boy Peter, his friends from the animal kingdom and the big bad wolf, with the grumbling grandfather and the hunters as added characters. By pairing each character with a specific orchestral instrument (or family of instruments), Prokofiev was able to fulfill the assignment and musically depict a variety of character traits.  

The narrator, who is also the master of ceremonies, narrates the performance. At first, he announces which character will be making his appearance in the orchestra. Gradually he changes into a reporter on the spot, who, together with the musicians, explains how the action is unfolding at that moment. It is possible that the narrator can be heard even before the start: Prokofiev recommends that the most important melodies - one per instrument - be played unaccompanied just before the actual performance begins.  This gives the young audience more time to get used to the musical constellation. 

Each character within this compact, 25-minute narrative has an immediately recognizable identity. Young Peter himself is first introduced by the narrator. His warm-blooded body theme echoes in the strings. The sweetly hopping rhythm portrays Peter's uninhibited nature, while the pastoral atmosphere perfectly suits the green meadow where the action is about to take place. We are also quickly introduced to the bird, Peter's companion and ally: the cheerful creature chirps merrily and is virtuously rendered by the flute in the high register. 

When the duck arrives, the tone becomes more serious. The melancholic motive of the oboe already suggests that the water bird will have a hard time. Moreover, the lilting melody line offers a perfect contrast to the pointed style of the flute. For the cat, Prokofiev calls upon another woodwind, the clarinet. Judging from the velvet tones and the expectant atmosphere, the wily quadruped is in hunting mode.  

A slightly comical supporting role is reserved for Peter's worried grandfather, whose warnings echo in the circling melody of the bassoon. He thinks it extremely unwise for his grandson to venture beyond the garden fence when the evil wolf could emerge from the woods at any moment. And indeed: as soon as the three horns produce their threatening sounds, we know that the dreaded predator is on the way. Will Peter and his friends be able to get themselves to safety in time? And how will they manage to render the wolf harmless? 

Then there are the hunters, who appear as mustard after the meal. The marching theme in the orchestra illustrates how they follow the wolf's tracks, while rumbles and loud beats on timpani and big drum accompany their (undirected) shots. But Peter, without violence, has already finished the job. It is time for the final scene, a triumphal procession to the zoo, where the wolf will be delivered. The only downside is that there is a casualty among the animals. But the narrator concludes his account with a somewhat reassuring announcement 

Even with repeated listening, Prokofiev's score continues to charm young and old listeners alike. While the children will reminisce for a long time about the touching story, the catchy melodies, and the colorful instrumental contributions, plenty of questions remain open for the adults. For example, do political messages lurk behind the effective simplicity of the storyline? Did the composer, who had just returned to the Soviet Union, consciously follow the dogmas of burgeoning socialist realism? Why does he describe Peter as a ‘pioneer’ or member of the Communist youth movement? Do the snarling grandfather and the inefficient hunters sometimes symbolize inhibitory forces that must be overcome?

Be that as it may, for the performers it remains a privilege to work on a performance of Peter and the Wolf. During the first performance this afternoon, narrator Jamai Loman will follow in the footsteps of prestigious predecessors such as singer Jacques Brel, actress Sophia Loren, conductor Leonard Bernstein, rock star David Bowie and - closer to home - television personality Paul de Leeuw.  


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