Sergei Prokofiev

Ashley Owens Professor Lleweylln Music Appreciation 13 November 2012 Sergei Prokofiev How does music make us feel? Not what do we feel when we listen to music but more specifically, what is it about Music that triggers our human emotions? What effect did hearing those sad country songs on the radio during my morning drive to school have on the rest of my day? Why does upbeat hip hop music always make me nod my head with the beat? Why does a song like “Go rest high on that mountain” by Vince Gill always make me cry?
Music is a large part of most of our everyday lives. Sergei Prokofiev understood that considering the feelings and emotions of the listener was vital in the production of music, and demonstrates in “Peter and the Wolf” how musical properties can persuade us emotionally. The road to Prokofiev’s growth to being one of the most unique composers of his time started in Sontsovka, Ukraine in the year 1891. His mother was a pianist and his first piano teacher. Prokofiev began writing piano pieces at age five and by age nine had written his first opera.
He studied at the St. Petersburg conservatory starting at ten years of age from 1904 to 1914. Prokofiev performed as a virtuoso starting in 1910 and began making a living in music. At his graduation recital he played his own first concerto. In 1915 during World War I he composed Scythian Suite and his first classical Symphony in 1917 (David Nice). In 1918 Prokofiev moved from Russia to the United States in search for greater artistic perspectives. After mixed experiences he moved to Paris in 1922 and finally returned home to Russia to be with his family in 1936.

One of his first compositions upon returning home was Peter and the Wolf. Written in April of 1936, Peter and the Wolf were written as an introduction for children to the orchestra and were narrated by Prokofiev himself at the children’s theatre in Moscow. The story takes place in a meadow near young Peter’s house. After watching the wolf swallow the duck, the young boy devises a plan with help of the bird, to capture the wolf and take him to the zoo. Each particular character in the story is represented by a musical instrument performed in the piece.
The bird is played by the flute, high in pitch and quick in tempo. The duck is played by an oboe, slow in tempo and giving him a clumsy feel. The clarinet represents the cat, sneaky and methodical. Grandpa is represented by a bassoon deep in pitch giving him comedic properties. The wolf is played by a French horn which gives off a hominess and dark presence. The hunters are played by the Timpani and drums mimicking the sound of their guns as they try to shoot the wolf. Finally Peter is played by a mix of string instruments, Violin, Viola, String Bass, and Cello.
Peter and the wolf show us how musical properties can persuade us emotionally. That we associate certain sounds with being happy or determined like Peter and the string instruments. While other sounds can be associated with sadness or generate fear like the wolf and the French horns. It is both the story, the composition of the music, and its ability to attach to parts of the story, that makes Peter and the Wolf so intriguing and timeless. These qualities also make it fun and enjoyable for multi age groups.
The story itself quickly has us intently supporting our hero Peter as he is visiting animals in the nearby meadow. It builds a rapport with the core characters making us feel involved in the story, making us care for the bird as he narrowly escapes the clutches of the sly cat, and at the same time casting Peter as the hero in this story. It shows us the down fall of the duck, when he is swallowed by the wolf, pulling us in on the real danger there in the meadow. The climax comes when Peter, with help of the bird, capture the wolf and save the meadows animals from harm.
True to his role of the hero Peter then stops the hunters from shooting the wolf and insists that he be taken to the zoo. The story seems to end on a happy note but leaves several questions unanswered and places for the story to continue. Questions like what happened on the way to the zoo, and would the duck ever escape from the belly of the wolf. The story is open-ended and allows us to form our own conclusions. The tune of Peter and the Wolf may be easily recognizable to some, since it is famous for its Disney interpretation and used regularly in classrooms for teaching.
Personally I associate the style of orchestra with older cartoons in which a great deal of them were without much dialog and were backed by classical music, as was Looney Tunes – Pigs in a Polka which contained Brahms Hungarian Dances #5,7,6 and 17. It can be easily argued that Prokofiev is indirectly responsible for all of them, as his Peter and the Wolf were really the first of its kind. Over ten years after its original creation, an animated adaption was created by Walt Disney and released on August 15th 1946 introduced as part of its Make mine Music collection of shorts.
Aside from narration by Sterling Holloway the cartoon is true to the original piece in that the characters are represented in sound by their respective musical instruments. The short animation does a great job of lining up the music with the art really bringing the characters and the music together. However trying to make the cartoon more child friendly the story is slightly altered and added to. During the introduction some of the characters are given names, “Sasha” the bird, “Sonia” the duck, and “Ivan” the cat.
At the end of the Disney version we find that the duck was not really eaten by the wolf but instead had hid in a tree trunk and is happily reunited with Peter and the other pets once the wolf is captured. Since then Peter and the Wolf has been remade several times in various ways most recently in 2008 by Suzie Templeton. Having the music fit into the animations makes it very easy for children of all ages to associate the sounds separately and really enjoy the story. Prokofiev’s music was sophisticated that almost a century later we are still using it to teach our children and entertain us all. Prokofiev was one of the great composers of the 20th century; arguably the greatest. I think the case for Prokofiev’s supreme greatness rests upon the likely premise that no other composer of the 20th century enriched the musical repertoire in as many different forms as did Prokofiev, and did so at such a consistently high level of quality and lyrical beauty” (Turlish). Though he is famous for only very few pieces of his work, the power of those pieces remains nearly unparalleled even to this day. Many artist credit Prokofiev for artistic inspiration in their creations.
Unfortunately Sergei Prokofiev was in many ways a man out of time. He was product of 19th century music that had his own way of writing and composing. For many who lived in the era this made him misunderstood and not taken seriously as a composer. In a recent interview, Barbara Nissman said, “he was such a natural talent, he followed his nose. Nobody ever dictated to him how to write and he wasn’t a member of any school of thought or academic theory. His music went where he thought it was supposed to go. You couldn’t put him in a box. Some people thought he was conservative but others thought he was way too out there.
I think his unique approach to the instrument – his sense of originality – frightened a lot of people, especially the critics who had no idea which box to put him in. ” Music, even if forgotten or put into the back of our subconscious for a long period of time can often trigger a memory or a feeling we had the first time we had heard it. Maybe an important time in our lives that we lived out while the radio was playing, we may or may not have even known it was there. However at any point we may stumble across that song on the radio, waiting in line at the bus station, or shopping at the local grocery store.
For however brief a moment it allows us or forces us depending on how you look at it, to go back in time a memory and recall it with enhanced clarity. Sergei Prokofiev realized these things and implemented this epiphany into his music, which to me seems more than obvious in the classic piece Peter and the Wolf. For years to come both children and adults may associate the hominess sound of the French horn with the frightening wolf, they may hear a flute and be over taken by their first memory of watching the classical Disney short, where they were, or who they were with.
Through concentrated listening we can learn to separate musical properties of any piece. However attaching those pieces to a character or a feeling is something that Sergei did way before his time. Prokofiev has touched so many lives, and through his music changed the landscape of how we all perceive it. Works Cited Turlish, Bruce. Kith. Org. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. Nice, David. Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935. Columbus. MT. Yale University Press Publication. 18 Oct. 2012. Print Nissman, Barbara. Adventures. In. Music. Biz. Web. 18 Oct. 2012