By Marcy Stamper
Peter and the Wolf, the well-loved fable told through music and accompanying narration, is often children’s first exposure to classical music and to the instruments of the symphony orchestra.
With its origins in a world culturally and geographically distant from rural Washington, Peter and the Wolf may seem an unlikely contribution to the contentious debate about wolves in 21st-century Okanogan County. (The piece was commissioned by a Moscow children’s theater in 1936 from Serge Prokofiev to teach children about music and Soviet ideals.) But Peter and the Wolf, with narration also by the composer, may offer some surprising — although accidental — insights.
Local audiences can hear Peter and the Wolf this Sunday (Feb, 9) in the Okanogan Valley Orchestra and Chorus’ family concert. Orchestra conductor Don Pearce said he has loved Peter and the Wolf since he was young and that it has always been on his list of music to bring to an audience.
“What’s neat for kids is they get a chance to experience the orchestra from a perspective they understand. Kids understand characters and a story — so they’re not just thinking of grandpa, but thinking of that big bassoon [which plays grandpa’s theme],” said Pearce. At the family concert, children are invited on-stage during part of the performance to experience the musicians and instruments up close.
Peter and the Wolf was in fact intended to be educational on several levels from the start. It introduces audiences to the instruments of the orchestra, showcasing their characteristics as they personify the different characters. It also contained a civic message for its young Moscow audience by highlighting Peter’s bravery, particularly in contrast to the old guard, said Simon Morrison, professor of music at Princeton University and president of the Prokofiev Foundation.
The piece begins with a peaceful idyll, with Peter (his carefree theme played by the violins and strings) and several animals — a bird, a duck and a cat — frolicking in a meadow. The bird (the warbling flute) chirps merrily while the duck (the languid, comical oboe) swims in a pond. The two birds tease each other about whether it is better to fly or swim.
Even when the cat (a stealthy but playful clarinet) stalks the bird, the bird is able to escape to a high branch. But soon Peter is scolded by his grandfather (the lumbering bassoon), who warns about dangers lurking in the meadow and locks the gate to keep Peter inside.
Before long, the tranquility is indeed shattered by the arrival of a wolf (a menacing choir of French horns), which promptly nabs the duck and swallows it. Peter and the bird spring into action and outwit the wolf, ultimately capturing it with a rope. Soon a group of hunters arrive, hot on the trail of the wolf, their gunshots reverberating on the drums.
Peter begs the hunters not to shoot, since he and the bird have successfully contained the wolf, and instead convinces the hunters to help them take the wolf to the zoo. In a final triumphant procession, they all escort the wolf to the zoo. “Everyone ends up at the zoo — it’s a neutral zone,” said Morrison.
Then, in the last strains of music, we hear the oboe playing the duck’s familiar melody from inside the wolf’s belly, because, as described in the narration, “the wolf, in his hurry, had swallowed her alive.”
“It’s a benign, childlike way to soften reality,” said Morrison. It didn’t matter if the wolf was alive or dead at the end — the key was that Peter and the animals had the courage to deal with the threat and to discover that it wasn’t so frightening after all.
From the perspective of a culture sharply divided over wolves and struggling to find a way to coexist with them, there’s something refreshing in the multiple nuances of this story, and in its depiction of resourcefulness and cooperation. Although the wolf’s life is spared, he does lose his freedom. The duck gets eaten, but she survives, admittedly also less free. The story lends itself to many interpretations.
“It’s a parable about taming nature — instead of killing the wolf, they put it in a cage,” said Morrison. Although Moscow was already a huge city in the early 20th century, it was surrounded by a dense forest and considered a provincial backwater, needing to be controlled through human ingenuity and technology, he said.
This theme should also resonate for those of us who live on the edge of wilderness and strive to balance the privileges and risks of that proximity. This country has its own long tradition of harnessing nature for our benefit. In Okanogan County today, questions about how to use and preserve our natural resources remain as unresolved as those surrounding wolves.
“The piece is wonderful musically — it’s very, very evocative,” said Morrison.
While it may not resolve the debate over wolves, hopefully Peter and the Wolf can provide a harmonious soundtrack for the discussion.
Marcy Stamper is a reporter for the Methow Valley News and a flutist in the Okanogan Valley Orchestra. She and her fellow flutist are playing the part of the bird.