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Hyperion Records

CDH55177 - Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf & other music for children
An illustration to the fairy tale The Little White Duck by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942)
CDH55177
(Originally issued on CDA66499)

Recording details: March 1991
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Christopher Palmer
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: October 2004
Total duration: 74 minutes 27 seconds

'[A] distinctive and appealing release' (Fanfare, USA)

'A most attractive concert' (Hi-Fi News)

Peter and the Wolf & other music for children
Departure  [2'55]
Waltz on the ice  [3'32]
The Bonfire  [1'41]
Winter evening  [2'18]
March  [1'34]
The Return  [0'59]
Morning  [2'13]
Waltz  [1'55]
Repentance  [2'55]
March  [1'09]
Evening  [2'58]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Once we understand Prokofiev’s own child-like nature we need not be surprised that he took to writing children’s music like the duck (in his own Peter and the Wolf) took to jumping into – and, less sensibly, out of – the water. He had a truly child-like guilelessness of spirit: life for him was always a great adventure, with the unexpected lurking round every corner. Excitement was constantly in the air, everything was a cause for wonder, and when he declared that the composer’s business was ‘to serve his fellow men, to beautify human life and point the way to a radiant future’ (my italics) he wasn’t just rehearsing some mandatory Soviet ideological platitude but stating, simply and sincerely, his own artistic credo. No wonder his music has such vitality and colour. To the end he viewed the world as a child views it: hopefully and with joy in his heart. He had more than his fair share of misfortunes and disappointments – particularly after his return to Soviet Russia – but the light never went out. He believed, as children do, that all the best story books have Happy Endings.

Certainly Prokofiev’s own ‘stories’ for children end happily – and there are quite a number, not merely those recorded here. The first was The Ugly Duckling, a setting of an adaptation (by Nina Meshchersky, Prokofiev’s first ‘real’ girlfriend) of Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known fairy tale. The piece is not, however, designed specifically for children, who would probably be bewildered by the absence of ‘melodious’ melody. The text is in prose, not verse, and is set à la Mussorgsky as continuous melodic recitative: the form is that of a miniature operatic scena in which voice and orchestra set the drama to music as it unfolds, without formalizing it. The original voice and piano version was basic duckling, though hardly an ugly one! Prokofiev proceeded then to turn it into a large and beautiful orchestral swan in a way that relates interestingly to contemporaneous trends in Russian art: the bird and animal characterizations suggest the bright, sharp colours of Larionov, Goncharova and the Primitivists, whereas the nature-music – the deepening dark and cold of winter, the coming of spring and sunshine – is more akin to Impressionism (Borisov-Mussatov and Larionov’s early work).

Apart from the 1918 Tales of an Old Grandmother for piano (again, like the Duckling, not so much children’s music as music about children or the child’s world), Prokofiev did not return to this theme until the mid-1930s. By this time he was married with two children of his own and had decided to settle permanently in Soviet Russia – where, of course, policies of coercion-through-indoctrination were particularly aimed at children, and composers were urged to compose for ‘the people’ in general and ‘young’ people in particular. Hence the twelve short and simple piano pieces of Opus 65, Music for Children, simple enough for children to play, written in 1935 at the same time as the ballet Romeo and Juliet. In 1941 the composer selected seven of the twelve and scored them for small orchestra, sacrificing some of their transparency in the process but giving them a new dimension of colour and also, of course, bringing them a wider audience. He awarded the ‘new’ work a new title, Summer Day. Two of the most attractive pieces, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Evening’, turned up later in yet another context, the ballet The Stone Flower (1948–50). The origin of the last movement, ‘The moon sails over the meadows’, was described by Prokofiev in an autobiographical sketch: ‘I was staying in Polenovo at the time in a little cottage with a balcony overlooking the Oka, and in the evenings I often watched the moon floating over the fields and meadows.’

1936 was the year of Peter and the Wolf (of which much more anon); 1936–9 yielded the delightful Three Children’s Songs; out of the misery of the war years came the fairy tale ballet Cinderella, all dazzling and glittering in its finery; then in 1949–50, even though by then Prokofiev was mortally sick, he produced two substantial works, the children’s suite Winter Bonfire and the oratorio On Guard for Peace. Both involved a children’s choir singing words by the Soviet children’s poet Samuil Marshak, and both were first performed in Moscow on the same evening (19 December 1950) with Prokofiev’s indefatigable champion Samuil Samosud conducting. Winter Bonfire is a day in the life of some ‘young pioneers’ and describes an expedition to the country in winter. Peter might have been among them – his basic key of C major is theirs too – but whereas Peter’s music had more than a touch of Euro-Classical sophistication, Winter Bonfire is Russian through and through and of egregious pedigree (Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, both renowned for the authenticity of their children’s music). Prokofiev’s train-music (‘Departure’ and ‘The Return’), his whirlingly vigorous ice-skater’s waltz and the march which leads straight into ‘The Return’ are among his most winning inspirations, as is his use of tremolando strings in ‘The Bonfire’ to depict the shimmer and glow of the fire.

The children’s choir which sings in ‘Chorus of the pioneers’ foreshadows the more extensive use of children’s voices (solo and en masse) in On Guard for Peace, in the gala-finale of which they metaphorically release large flocks of (emblematic) doves into the summer sky over Moscow.

Everybody knows the words and music of Peter and the Wolf, and if they don’t, all they have to do is listen to it. Rather than introduce and comment on the music (which has been done many times before), I have chosen here to tell in some detail the story of how it first came into being (which hasn’t). For this we have to thank the initiative and enthusiasm of a remarkable woman, Natalia Satz, who in the Stalin era survived a period in a Siberian prison camp to pursue her lifelong commitment to theatre and music for children. The following account is edited and adapted from her autobiography Sketches from my Life published in Russian in 1979 (when the author was 76) and in English translation in 1985:

Peter and the Wolf meet the Children of the World …
In June 1935, a great event occurred at a performance of Polovinkin’s opera The Tale of the Fisherman and the Goldfish. The performance had already begun when our business manager came into my office an said, in breathless excitement: ‘Serge Prokofiev is in the audience, I’ve just taken him to the manager’s box. He’s here with his wife and sons.’

No wonder he was excited. I went to a box opposite the manager’s and could just make out Prokofiev in the semi-darkness (before that, I had only seen photos of him). The performance went very badly and when afterwards I was introduced to him I felt so awful I couldn’t even smile properly. In his ginger-coloured foreign suit he seemed stiff and haughty. He answered my questions reluctantly and monosyllabically. His wife and children, on the contrary, were pleased and friendly, and I thought I might hope to see the family again.

That hope was fulfilled. A week later, the Prokofievs came to our play The Story of Dzyuba. I sat in the box with them from the beginning and was able to observe Prokofiev’s reactions, which were even more spontaneous than his sons’. He laughed loudly and sincerely, and made all sorts of comments. What he liked, he liked very much, but his dislikes were just as intense. It took me some time to get used to his curt replies, but by and by I began to feel quite easy in his presence. He was sincere and frank. My first impression of him as stiff and haughty proved quite erroneous: he wore that mask only when he was out of humour and wanted to be left alone. It was remarkable that Prokofiev had kept his Russian spontaneity after living so long abroad.

The Prokofievs apparently liked our theatre and saw almost the whole of our repertory. Prokofiev’s sons enjoyed going to their own theatre, a theatre for children. This was something they had not been able to do abroad.

Prokofiev made a few interesting critical comments about our theatre. ‘Where you have a musical story and movement, I am quite satisfied; where there is singing, I am not. Do you really have to produce operas?’

I knew that Prokofiev had written a few works for children – The Ugly Duckling after Andersen, and the Tales of an Old Grandmother – and I dreamed of making him write something for us. It was my greatest passion to stimulate creative genius to add to the treasury of artistic works devoted to children.

What I had in mind was a fairy tale for symphony orchestra in which music and speech would be combined. I had never heard of such a work before, but it seemed a not impossible idea: trying to connect speech and music in some entertaining way, to hold our children-audience’s attention? The type of ‘symphonic fairy tale’ I had in mind might help us to introduce the children to the musical instruments and their specific sounds. Should I perhaps commission one of our regular composers to do it? No, the only name I could think of was Serge Prokofiev.

I decided to wait for the right moment to approach him. It came when the founding of the Central Children’s Theatre opened up new horizons for us. I thought it would be a good idea to invite Prokofiev to see our new building. He came, was in a good mood, and the concert was an immense success. He was no longer coldly official to me. A couple of days later I phoned him and asked permission to see him on a very important matter. He told me to come in two days.

At that time Prokofiev had no flat of his own in Moscow and was living at the Hotel Nationale. When I arrived he was quite hospitable, offering coffee that he made himself. It was quite good and there were a lot of delicious things to eat. I looked round. The piano, was open, and there were sheets of notepaper everywhere. Books on the table, and also a chessboard with chessmen on it. I wondered if he was playing both for and against himself, but then the telephone rang, Prokofiev picked up the receiver and moved his castle. ‘Then my move is …’

It turned out that he was playing chess with a friend by telephone, doing a number of other, more important things at the same time. My host was obviously bursting with energy, and had many varied interests, but there was order in that chaos. I had to start probing, or else he might hurry off somewhere. How should I begin?

‘Do your boys study music?’ ‘Yes, they do, but it’s a waste of time. No ability at all.’ Clearly that wasn’t going to get me what I wanted. I tried again.

‘When did you hear an orchestra for the first time?’ ‘At nine, when I was taken to St Petersburg to hear Faust. It made an indelible impression, of course. The music, the costumes, the action. Like all boys, I especially admired the sword fight. When I returned to the village, I wrote my first opera, The Giant – the words and the music. There was a duel in my opera, too, of course, but the most important thing was missing – an orchestra. My cousin played the orchestral part on the piano, but it was not enough: the impact of all those instruments was unforgettable.’

At last I had got there, so I launched into a well rehearsed speech. ‘All children have a great interest in the orchestra, and we adults want them to learn and love music at an early age, so that they can listen to music in the same way as they read books. But no music for little children has been written, or almost none. You may have noticed that children willingly go to the theatre to see a play, but it’s difficult for them to listen to music when they have nothing to look at. What about a symphonic fairy tale with the musical development accompanied by, guided by, narration? The children could then hold onto the words like a handrail.’

Prokofiev seemed to be interested and I went into my plan in more detail trying to be as specific as possible, which he liked. I left feeling I had made some progress, Prokofiev had listened to me attentively, but I knew he would not be talked into doing anything he didn’t want to do.

A few days later the telephone rang: he did want to do it. He spent a whole evening at my piano working out a scheme, a story. We decided the main purpose would be to introduce very young children to the instruments of the orchestra. I suggested that the characters might be animals and birds, and at least one human personage.

Prokofiev agreed. ‘The role of each animal or bird will be played by a single instrument, but the many-sided human character will be, say, a string quartet.’ He grew enthusiastic. ‘Yes, we should begin with specific and striking contrasts: the wolf and the bird, the evil and the good, the big and the small. The characters’ individuality will be expressed in the timbres of different instruments, and each of them will have a leitmotiv.’

The end result was that the Central Children’s Theatre officially commissioned Prokofiev to write a symphonic piece for what seemed an embarrassingly modest fee, but it was all we could afford. He signed the contract without a murmur.

Things began badly. I invited a poetess, an admirer of Prokofiev’s music, to work up our ideas in the form of a scenario. Prokofiev threw it out at once and I got a good dressing-down for my pains. ‘She did it all in rhyme, and the balance between words and music in a work like this is very delicate. The words must know their place, otherwise they may lead the listener’s attention astray, instead of helping his perception of the music.’

Prokofiev was right. The fragile and complex process of creation had already begun in him, and the diligently written doggerel that had nothing to do with the music had naturally infuriated him. Luckily, I was quite unafraid of him by that time, and he accepted my suggestions with unexpected enthusiasm. ‘What if we add another character to our cast – the boy’s Grandfather? That’ll be another fine contrast: one is merry, lively and fearless, the other slow-moving and cautious, grumbling all the time: ‘Supposing you get into trouble – wha-at then?’’ I said that ‘what then’ in a twangy old man’s voice. Prokofiev suddenly snatched up a sheet of notepaper and cried, ‘Say ‘what then’ again, I liked your intonation’. The way he wrote it, the phrase came out as a perfect fifth – a long F, a short F, and a B flat. ‘Let’s have Grandad by all means’, Prokofiev said resolutely.

We talked on the phone several times a day and spent long evenings at the piano. lt did not matter now that he was a world-famous composer, a man much older than myself: we were both engrossed in our task. ‘It’s time for me to work on my own’, he said one day. ‘I’ll telephone you when I come up with something.’

After that he vanished into thin air. I patiently waited, though I often looked at my phone beseechingly, even with some hostility. And then it rang! ‘Natasha? Best regards from Peter and the Wolf. Where do we go from here?’ ‘Could we hear it tonight, after the performance? Just me and a few children?’

Prokofiev agreed, but he said he’d come immediately to rehearse me a bit. He wanted me to recite the text that evening. He wrote it out for me parallel with the music, the way he wanted it to sound in actual performance. Later I would have to learn my part thoroughly to recite it artistically, in time with the music, but that night I might be excused for fluffing my lines in all the excitement.

There were about a dozen children at that first performance in my office. ‘Early one morning’, I began, ‘Peter opened the gate and went out into the big green meadow …’ And so on. The children liked the piece, I could tell that at once by the way they listened. Children sometimes praise a work enthusiastically when it is over, but they fidget and chat during the performance. And here the little imps were sitting as quiet as mice, though the symphony lasted twenty-four minutes without a break.

‘Is that the end?’ asked a disappointed voice, and several others clamoured for more. Prokofiev had to play the final march three times over. You can imagine my joy to be at the birth of a musical masterpiece, one that would help millions of children to understand music and come to love it.

Prokofiev finished the orchestration in a week. Imagine – the whole work written in little more than two weeks!

As ill luck would have it I was indisposed at the time of the first performance and could not take part in it. What went wrong I don’t know, but when Prokofiev came to see me he was in a foul mood. ‘Did we overlook something important?’ he asked. But I was not at all worried. ‘If we did, we’ll put it right. You’ve written a masterpiece, and I’m quite sure it’ll be a success. You can never go by the first performance.’

On 5 May 1936 the children’s symphony orchestra of our theatre was due to play at a festival of Soviet art. Journalists and tourists from France, Great Britain and America were expected. There would be a surprise for them – a new work by Serge Prokofiev, whom they knew well, a work he had written after his return to Moscow.

‘Don’t you think it would be a good idea for me to watch from the sidelines this time? I might think of some changes’, said Prokofiev, with almost childish trust. ‘Yes, we’d better let Polovinkin conduct’, I replied. ‘And will you get well in time for the performance?’ ‘I will, don’t worry.’

Peter and the Wolf created a sensation. Newspapers and magazines both in this country and abroad wrote of it, and the May concert was the beginning of its long life in concert halls throughout the world.

It probably never crossed Prokofiev’s mind that the younger of the two sons he described as having ‘no ability’ to Satz – Oleg, born in 1928 – would one day be performing the speaker’s part of Peter and the Wolf. He would have been even more surprised, and no doubt amused, to know that three generations of Prokofiev have now recorded it. Lina, his wife, was the first (in 1986, for Chandos); and now Oleg, a distinguished painter and sculptor, has adapted the text so as to involved his own son Gabriel, who has inherited his grandfather’s twin passions for music and the theatre and at sixteen is already an accomplished horn-player and actor. The way it has turned out makes one regret all the more that Prokofiev never wrote a full-scale theatre piece for children actually to perform and sing in.

Christopher Palmer © 1991

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