Sergei Prokofiev (pronounced SAIR-gay pro-KOFF-ee-ev) was born in Sontsovka in Yekaterinoslav Governorate (part of Russia). He was born in 1891, and lived to 1953. He wrote many pieces of music, including ballets, piano works, and symphonies. But his best known work of all is "Peter and the Wolf".
In 1936, Prokofiev was commissioned by the Central Children's Theater in Moscow to write a new symphonic work for children. Intrigued by the project, he wrote the entire piece (music and narration) in four days. The first time this piece was performed, it wasn't well attended, and it would seem discouraging to Prokofiev. Little did he know then that this would become one of the most well-known classical works of all time.
Recordings of "Peter and the Wolf" started as early as 1939. But the biggest break would come just a little later. In the early 1940s, Prokofiev payed a visit to the studios of an up and coming animation studio, and met with its founder, Walt Disney. He presented Walt with the music for Peter and the Wolf, and Walt decided to make an animated version of the story. He made the story a little more child-friendly (none of the characters die in this version), as well as added names to many of the other characters. The narrator was Sterling Holloway, who Disney fans may recognize as the voice of Winnie the Pooh, as well as Kaa the snake from The Jungle Book. The finished animated short was released in 1946, as part of a production called Make Mine Music, and was later included before a re-release of Fantasia.
Since then, there have been many different recordings of the work. The Disney version is probably still the most recognized. The piece uses an overly obvious form of leitmotif. We covered what leitmotif is back in May 2009. In a nutshell, the music tells the story by assigning different little themes (bits of music) to represent a character or action. The narration makes it even easier to follow the story. Because of that, I don't know that I really need to do any more introduction. The piece really "speaks" for itself.
I'm not sure when I would have actually seen the Walt Disney version, but I remember having seen it at a young age. When I was five, I distinctly remember owning a vinyl record with Disney's "Peter and the Wolf" (with Sterling Holloway narrating) on one side, and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" on the other side (more on that in October).
I didn't discover other versions of Peter and the Wolf until well into High School. I've included my two most favorite discoveries here.
This piece is much longer than a lot of the other pieces we've done so far. This recording is 27 minutes long. But unlike many of the other pieces, this is specifically made to capture the attention of the children, so you should be okay. You'll just want to plan for more time. Enjoy!
For those interested, this recording features the incomparable Itzhak Perlman, one of the greatest violinist who ever lived. He's narrating this story, which adds an interesting accent (he's Jewish). He's accompanied by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta.
This really deserves credit for the first piece I really knew that introduced me to leitmotif. It brings a whole new dimension to music to let it tell you a story.
My favorite theme of all those listed was the wolf. I love low brass. And while French Horns aren't necessarily low brass, it's good enough for me. I loved trombone as a young child, and although the trombone isn't playing the melody, it's there, and I knew it.
I've also grown to love the hunters' theme. The timpani is fun, but the little Russian melody is one that I find humming hours after I've heard this piece.
The Disney version will always have a special place in my heart, but I also enjoy hearing it as it was written. The Itzhak Perlman recording is a good example of that.
It would be absolutely silly of me not to include the Disney version. Walt Disney's Peter and the Wolf from Make Mine Music
And finally, I would be remiss if I did not include this version. "Weird Al" Yankovic and Wendy Carlos put together their own rendition of "Peter and the Wolf" in 1988. "Weird Al" Yankovic is a musician known for making fun of other people's songs (as well as writing funny songs of his own), and Wendy Carlos is a famous synthesizer/keyboard player and composer. It's the full story (so it's another half-hour), but the addition of "Bob the Janitor" alone will make it worth it for you. Trust me.