Concert III – Children’s Songs Program Notes

February 26, 2017

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67

Although the two composers on our program, Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel, are worlds apart in their musical styles and experiences, both take a similar approach in their works for children. They use strong musical voices to tell their stories, often focusing on the very distinct timbres and colors of the woodwind instruments, and they use clear and transparent orchestrations to portray the musical worlds and events they depict.

Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” represents a very bright spot in a very dark world. Prokofiev had left the new Soviet Union just after the Revolution and, from 1918, he spent the next decade working in Europe and the United States. But his ties to Russia remained strong, and beginning in 1927, he made a series of highly publicized visits back to his homeland. This culminated in his decision, in 1936, to move back to Moscow permanently. Historians have endlessly discussed his reasoning, for his final move was made during some of the most ominous of the Stalinist years, a time when his fellow Soviet composers, Dmitrii Shostakovich in particular, had been experiencing the full weight of the Party’s artistic and cultural controls. Prokofiev arrived back in Moscow in March 1936, and it was at this time that he began his work on “Peter and the Wolf.” In collaboration with the director of the Moscow Children’s Musical Theater, Natalia Satz, they worked out a story which, as Prokofiev said, should be “full of contrasts, something that makes a strong impression” for their young audience. They decided that the story would be read by a narrator, and they assigned a young poet to write this text. When this poet showed him her text, Prokofiev was, to put it mildly, dissatisfied. As Natalia Satz reported, she found the young poet “huddled against the door, or rather clinging to it. Sparks were flying from the composer’s eyes.” Prokofiev, a somewhat aloof and always unsentimental person, hated the cloying rhymes and language she had produced and decided to write the text himself, in prose.

The result was the timeless story of a boy, his animal companions, and his clever and brave actions on their behalf. The story, as Prokofiev envisioned it, would be told through the music: “The distinct characters,” he said, “will be reflected in the distinct quality of the various musical timbres; each character will have its own leitmotif.” Thus, we meet Peter, a forthright young hero who is represented by a forthright march played by the strings. We follow him as he goes out into the meadow and sees animals: a bird (depicted by the flute), a duck (oboe), and a cat who is stalking both (clarinet). Peter’s grandfather (bassoon) tells him to come back into their yard—the meadow outside the gate is dangerous because a wolf might appear. So Peter goes back inside and, naturally, the wolf appears right on cue (french horns). The wolf is indeed dangerous, for, after the two other animals escape from his reach, he turns to the duck, confused and slow, and he swallows it whole. Peter is able to stop the wolf by tying a rope around its tail so he can’t escape. Hunters (to a march-like motif) appear and help Peter take the wolf to the zoo, accompanied by the cat, the bird, and the grandfather, each with its by-now familiar motif. Even the duck is there, quacking softly inside the wolf’s stomach.

Along with some of his most popular works (for example, the ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella), during his last twenty years in Russia, Prokofiev wrote with what historian Richard Taruskin calls “enormous technical flair and great stylistic originality,” abundantly illustrated by the music of “Peter and the Wolf.” In spite of the difficulties for himself and his family—and they were tremendous and relentless—this was a productive and creative period for him. And during this time, Prokofiev gave the world one of the most endearing (and enduring) children’s pieces ever written.


Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): Suite from Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)

Ravel’s “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose Suite) occupied the composer’s attention over several years. He originally wrote these five movements between 1908 and 1910 as a piano duet for children of some close friends. The piano works were inspired largely by the 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault, who wrote many eternally popular stories, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and the collection used in some of the movements we’ll hear today, Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (The Tales of Mother Goose). The little set of piano pieces were simple, appropriate for performance by these lucky children. In the following year, Ravel orchestrated these works at the encouragement of his publisher, and in 1912, he expanded the initial set of movements to create a ballet based on these tales.

The orchestral version we’ll hear is a brilliant, although seemingly modest, tour de force demonstrating Ravel’s enormous skills as an instrumental writer. Each movement creates its own sound world, with precisely laid out voices, usually in the winds, articulating each of the characters and characteristics of the sequence of stories. The first movement is the “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant” (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty)—a pavane is a slow, stately dance that often unfolds in a long and flowing line, as this movement does. In depicting the outlines of the story, we hear a calm and curvaceous melody that is passed among solo woodwinds, underlaid with muted strings. This seems to depict the peaceful sleep of the princess after she has pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Eventually this ever-unspooling melody builds to a brief climax in the violins, when, in the story, the old woman watching over the princess is revealed as the Good Fairy.

In the second movement, “Petit Poucet” (Tom Thumb), we follow Tom as he wanders through the forest, leaving himself a trail of bread crumbs so he won’t get lost. The movement unfolds in continual, but off balance, motion, with shifts from two beats per measure to three, to four, to five, back to three, and then to two again, and this in the first six bars alone! Birds appear, marked by a brief series of harsh tweets, and steal his bread crumbs, leaving Tom to return, alone and disconsolate, as the movement tapers to a quiet end.

“Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes” (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas), the third movement, is an orchestral feast, using pentatonic melodies (scale patterns based on five notes, like the black keys of a piano) to suggest the exotic locale, and with lots of colorful instrumentation: percussion, harp, gongs, and more. This is the longest of the movements, providing a kind of centering weight and structure to the more impressionistic images of the other sections.

A gentle waltz takes us into “Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête” (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast), depicting Beauty as she enters her room holding her mirror. The Beast is represented by her timbral and registral opposite, the contrabassoon, and we hear their interactions as first she hesitates, and then they come together in the waltz, a sweet final dance that emphasizes not only their differences but their compatibility as well.

The fifth movement, “Le jardin féerique” (The Enchanted Garden), brings the suite to a conclusion. It features full strings writing, in contrast to the somewhat sparing use of the string section in the previous movements, and ends with a solemn processional that is warm and generous, rising to a full-throated conclusion with triumphant strokes of the timpani.

Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen