Monday, November 6, 2006

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

In 1891, Sergei Prokofiev was born on a country estate in a rural area of the Russian Empire which is now part of Ukraine.  His parents, though of modest means, were nonetheless educated and ambitious.  His father was the estate manager; his mother, an accomplished pianist in her own right, nurtured the young Prokofiev's obvious musical precocity but allowed him to discover it largely on his own.  By age 12, he had become a student of pianist-composer Reinhold Gliere, and had already composed two operas, a symphony, and dozens of piano works.  He was accepted at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and completed ten years of study with some of the best known Russian musicians of the day — Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatol Liadov. As a student, he was commended for his astonishing piano performances much more so than for his compositions, whose adventurous rhythms and harmonies were considered shocking and uncivilized. 

Prokofiev traveled Europe and Asia through the turbulent 1910's, but eventually sought new audiences in the United States, Paris and London, and remained in the West for 25 years, composing and performing a wide range of choral, symphonic and virtuoso piano pieces.  By 1935, however, almost all of his commissions were coming from within the Soviet Union, and he moved to Moscow permanently in 1936, the same year he wrote "Peter and the Wolf" for the Central Children's Theater. 
The intent of this work was to "cultivate musical tastes in children from the first years in school," an idea to which he warmly related.  Sources say he completed this "symphonic tale" in less than two weeks, perhaps as little as four days, supplying his own narrative based on memories of his childhood.  Prokofiev introduces sections of the orchestra to the audience as characterizations, with Peter portrayed by the strings, the Bird by the flute, the Duck by the oboe, the Cat by the clarinet, the Wolf by the horn section, the Grandfather by the bassoon and so on.  Though the composer was disappointed at its premier, “Peter and theWolf” has gone on to become a favorite of children as well as sophisticated adult listeners since that time. 

In the period that followed, Prokofiev continued a vigorous and productive composing and performing career, all the while struggling to stay on good terms with the ever more repressive and paranoid Communist government.  By 1950, the political climate in the Soviet Union became increasingly isolationist, and a number of composers and other artists suffered official denouncements for their international ties, among them Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khatchadourian.

In his final eight years life, suffering from poor health triggered by a fall and concussion, Prokofiev produced more symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other works, some rather blandly patriotic.  His last public appearance was at the premiere of his popular, but somber Symphony No. 7, also composed for young audiences, for which he received the 1957 Lenin Prize (posthumously) after his death in 1953. 

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