Composers’ talent for wit, parody and light-hearted fun seem to cause them shame rather than providing a reason for celebration. Such was the case for Saint Saens and his wonderful Carnival of the Animals. Arthur Sullivan (Gilbert’s partner) also wished to be a “serious” composer. He wrote a symphony that hardly anyone remembers whereas everyone who ever heard the tunes of the Mikado or HMS Pinafore cannot help singing or whistling them.
This was not true of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) who truly had fun with animals as a child. Prokofiev was a child prodigy and like Mozart started composing at the age of 5.
Peter and the Wolf was written for children in two weeks and was intended as a child’s introduction to the instruments of the orchestra. Each character is represented by a different instrument and has his own musical theme.
The narrator tells the story of Peter, a young pioneer (the equivalent of a boy scout), whose friends, a duck, a bird and a cat are threatened by a wolf from the woods.
Peter lives with his grandfather (represented by a bassoon) who has strictly forbidden him to go into the woods. The duck is announced by the oboe, the bird by a flute, the cat by a clarinet and the wolf with a chorus of menacing French horns.
There are also hunters (tympanic drums) whose aim is to shoot the wolf. Disobeying his grandfather, Peter climbs over a wall, captures the wolf and in a joyful parade takes it to the zoo.
There is a moral to this tale: it promotes the virtues of resourcefulness and risk taking. It is also joyful and encourages audience participation. Peter and the Wolf has been adapted for a puppet performance by the “Spitting Image Puppets” marvelously decorated and costumed , whimsical and hilarious.
And to end on a completely different note : Listen to Walking the Dog by George Gershwin, a joyous, careless saunter by a two legged and a four legged creature happy in each other’s company.
Editor’s note: When I was five years old, the wolf music in this story scared the hell out of me.