1936: Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

MONDAY, September 21, 2020 – 9:57 AM

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf, age 45

(Last night I was trying to update a version of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 and messed up the file so badly that I had to set it aside. I then went to Peter and the Wolf and quickly put up a rather old version, that I no longer like. Suddenly I realized that I can keep an old version online while working on a new one, the replace when it’s done at my leisure. So I got up today, thinking I would just make some minor changes. But I suddenly discovered several new things. But first, the music.)


In this case, instead of movements, there is a story. Usually it is narrated, but there are versions without the narration. I may come back here later with time stamps.

  • Peter: Peter is always represented by the strings, usually all of them. The first thing you want to know is that the strings are written just like piano, in bass and treble, except for the pesky viola part. The first note you see in the viola looks like low A in the bass clef or low F in the treble. But the little “pointer” for the clef says that line 3 is D. I absolutely LOATHE this system. I have to concentrate, because it means that the real note is exactly in the center of the positions I know. That first note is G, exactly in the center of where it looks like in the treble and bass clef. So the first note is the G that is a 4th below middle C. Once I get oriented I can follow it, but usually the viola doubles the bass part, at least around half the time, but normally an octave higher. That’s a trick for beginning score reading. Watch the strings, and they are always at the bottom of the page. There is no key signature yet, because it’s n the key of C major – well sort of. Prokofiev was a modern composer, so he immediately spent around half the time in the key of Eb, but always ends here in C major. And he also brings back Peter’s theme in many keys. He also turns Peter’s theme into a waltz in the middle of the story, after the wolf is caught.
  • The bird: It’s the flute, and what a strange thing music is. The flute is super high and often goes up to many lines above the staff, but it’s always in treble clef, exactly like the piano. It’s concert pitch, so flute is wysiwyg. Following flute parts is a great way to strengthen your treble clef reading.
  • The duck: She’s an oboe, and oboe is also concert pitch. She’s mostly in the key of Ab major. Oboe is in treble clef, good for pianists, and usually it’s in a comfortable place to read.
  • The cat: Clarinet in A is written a minor 3rd too high. It is not concert pitch. Clarinet players are used to this, but it drives pianists nuts, and when pianists become conductors, at first it drives them nuts too. What is highly unusual here is that apparently Prokokiev was as annoyed as I am at this convention. For conductors who don’t have very accurate pitch recognition, transposing the instruments is a cheat. They can remember the notes their players are actually playing easier. But it’s not good for hearing. Prokofiev wrote this A clarinet part in concert pitch, so it is also wysiwyg. The clarinet part is in the key of G, but Prokoview does not use a key signature because he repeats the theme in the key of C major.
  • Grandfather: He’s a basson, and bassoon is wysiwyg, in bass clef, so super easy for us to read. Grandfather is in B minor.
  • The Wolf: Modern horn is always transposed. It took me a long time to hear it because it is written up a 4th or down a 5th. I always forget. I just know it because I taught horn. But Prokofiev apparently broke with tradition. What he did would be very hard for horn players, but for pianists it’s great. He wrote his horn parts in concert pitch. Wysiwyg. I’ve never seen this before, ever, and I love it. Horn is always in treble clef, but here it is in bass at first and changes to treble as it goes higher. This is just great to see. It’s how I write, so of course I’m a huge fan of what you see here.
  • Trombone: It’s not a character, but an action. This is about Peter tying up the wolf.
  • The hunters: The are kind of in two keys at the same time, and they start off in Db, then move to D, but always sliding back down. They end up in C. All sorts of instruments could be the hunters, but timpani are front and center. They don’t have any pitch, just a rhythm, because hey are pre-tuned to a key.


  • flute, oboe, clarinet in A, bassoon
  • 3 horns in F, trumpet in Bb, trombone
  • timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, castanets, snare drum, bass drum
  • strings

Almost a Mozart sized orchestra…

There is a trombone, but no tuba. The woodwinds are about the same as what Mozart wrote for at the end of his like. There are, of course, the rich horn parts that were not possible in Mozart’s time because his horns had no valves. But the main change is the percussion section, and there you can see how orchestras changed. There may have been more varied percussion sections in other music – I need to research that. For instance, what was Mozart’s orchestra in Don Giovanni? But I do know that even in symphonies more and more percussion instruments were included.

I did not hear this until I was around age 16…

The version I heard was with Leonard Bernstein conducting and narrating. He was famous for being a fine composer, conductor, and pianist – what I call a “triple threat”. In addition, he was a fine teacher and was famous for “Young People’s Concerts”.

As a composer he was most famous for “The West Side Story”.

I loved it then, and I love it now…

By the time I first heard this I was listening to very advanced, sophisticated music, things I believe most adults would be unable to connect with. But this famous piece by Prokokiev did not bore me, and it still does not, so I think it’s good for people of any age. It is especially good for introducing the sound and appearance of different instruments to people.

(I always feel very sorry for the poor duck!)

The score is mostly concert pitch…

I can’t check what is in the standard score used by conductors because those scores are not only super expensive and have to be ordered, copyright laws have the music locked up. I’ve never seen it. Copyright protection for music in the US is insane. I never saw most of the works of Rachmaninov until recently for that reason. They kept Debussy’s music locked up forever.

But now we can see the score online…

This is an incredible resource, and I don’t think the video I’m linking to today was online when I first posted this article. It’s a major find.

The easiest orchestral score in the world for the average person to study…

All the instruments are in concert pitch except the viola part. For some reason you will never see a viola part in concert pitch. It’s always in alto clef, which is exactly on letter too high or two low for the rest of us, depending on whether you mentally put it in treble or bass clef. Actually it’s a 9th off in some direction, or a 7th. I forget. I just read it, as I do all the instrument, but slowly and with a lot of cursing.

The eyesore of conventional scores…

As is true of so many other things about notation, they make it as hard for us as possible. The convention is to always show music as the musicians see it, in their clefs and in their keys. This means that around half the instruments are composed, on the score. For people like me, who have something very close to perfect pitch, it means half the instruments are too high or too low, and I’ve never figured out how conductors hear everything that way.

Prokofiev apparently preferred to write in concert pitch, but I can’t see enough of his music to be sure.

If the music in this online score is correct, he really did write in concert pitch, except for the viola part. The only thing that is a bit tough is that part of the clarinet part is really low but written all in the treble clef. As a pianist I’d like to see the low parts written in bass clef.

This was so easy to follow…

If only all scores were written this way, I could read all of them just like piano music, only with more staves. On a day when I’m tired and have not had enough sleep, following along was relaxing

The story is partially propaganda…

Prokofiev had do deal with Stalin, and of course they tried to make the story about some kind of young Soviet hero, but Prokofiev was fiercely independent and basically came up with his own story.

Disney almost included the story in Fantasia…

Prokofiev came to the US in the 1930s and met Disney. Most of those old Soviets secretly loved Disney’s animation, including Krushchev, who was barred from going to Disneyland but Walt Disney. Disney was very impressed with Prokofiev.

Peter and the Wolf with the score is for adults…

If you watch the score, you will learn a ton about how we make music and how we write it. That’s why eventually I want to make time stamps. Children will not be able to do this unless they are young Mozart’s and extremely advanced at reading scores. Reading an orchestral score at a young age is about like seriously studying a Shakespeare play, something normally most people are not able to do until their middle to late teens, and then only with careful study and lots of training.

7 thoughts on “1936: Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

  1. I really enjoy the strange direction this piece took with a combination of music and storytelling. This was experimental and exciting which has payed off in making it one of the most popular and commonly played classical pieces out there. Goes to show what some skill and originality can do for you.

  2. I tried following along with the score. It went along well in some parts, not as well in others. The narrator added a lot of drama. Now that I know about Leitmotivs I found them to be very effective here. This was quite enjoyable.

  3. I’ve gone back to this with the new presentation. I liked being able to click on the hyperlinks, get to hear the themes and instruments for each character, and identify the instruments of the orchestra. I also try to identify the other instruments that come in. I’m not looking at the score to read the actual notes, but you can see the rhythms and the ups and downs sort of, that line up with the ups and downs we hear.

  4. The characters’ ‘instruments’ add a little more to each scene. We feel the scene because we know who goes with what. Speaking of that, the instruments portray their characters well. Although some were left out, these instruments would have no reason to be in this, or room to be there.

  5. I like the way Prokoviev used different instruments for each character. A great feature was the various instruments being shown as they played.

    Peter disobeyed his grandfather, but became a hero. Would his grandfather’s feelings have been different if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf?

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