By Éric Chevillard, from Music & Literature No. 8. Chevillard is the author of numerous novels, including Prehistoric Times, which appeared in English in 2012. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump.
Yes, yes, yes, it’s very charming, is Peter and the Wolf, I won’t deny it, a fine introduction to orchestral music for the young audience who must somehow be made to swallow that bizarre, tiresome manifestation of human genius, those fireworks of polished brass and varnished wood, that spectacle of the austere and black-dressed waggling their mallets, their sticks, their bows, as if they had no idea what to do with a shovel, a drill, a saw, a ladle, an oyster fork. Sergey Prokofiev believed — rightly, cleverly, underhandedly — that some manner of sop had to be thrown to those little sprites, who might very well whine and carry on without some naïve little tale to distract them from the stiff-necked, solemn, symphonic tedium.
And so, as everyone knows, how can you not, he came up with the idea of assigning every character in the story an instrument of the orchestra and a musical phrase, to keep the ingenuous child, ignobly manipulated and silenced, still in his seat. Thus the strings introduce Peter, the happy, fun-loving little hero; the airy, twittering flute is the bird, the melancholy oboe the duck, the mellow clarinet the velvet-pawed cat, the severe, somber horns the wolf, the muttering bassoon the grumpy grandfather, the timpani and bass drum the hunters. The story is simple: ignoring his grandfather’s orders, Peter ventures into the countryside, where he meets a cat, a bird, and a duck, whose mutual vilifications come out as music. Later, a wolf devours the duck. Perched on a branch, Peter captures the wolf with the aid of the bird and a rope; the hunters pursuing it show up too late, and it all ends with a perfectly orchestrated tumult of collective celebration.
We’ve all heard the concert three or four times and seen several cartoon versions as well. And of course not one Christmas went by, not one birthday, without some music-loving aunt giving us yet another new recording of the thing, Peter and the wolf, them again, narrated by one silver-tongued actor or another. They all have to shoulder those roles sooner or later, it’s a must for a successful career, that and Hamlet and Don Juan, there’s no getting out of it.
Here’s the rub: pummeled by Peter and the Wolf, knocked senseless, saturated, the child ends up definitively and permanently associating the instruments with the characters they arbitrarily play. The muttering bassoon will always be a grumpy grandfather, the melancholy oboe a duck, the airy, twittering flute a bird, the mellow clarinet a velvet-pawed cat, the bass drum a hunter, the severe, somber horn a wolf emerging from the forest, and the violin that happy, fun-loving little hoodlum Peter.
Imagine the nightmarish visions that arrive when you listen to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique: the melancholy duck eats the eyes of the velvet-pawed cat, whose claws shred happy, fun-loving Peter’s belly as it dies. The muttering grandfather marries the melancholy duck while the hunters slaughter one another and the airy, twittering bird carries off the severe, somber wolf to devour it in its aerie. Or Mahler’s Song of the Night: the severe, somber wolf is a finance minister, calling for a vote on a law that will sentence the velvet-pawed cat to shelling peas. The airy, twittering bird vomits up wallpaper paste. Happy, fun-loving Peter plucks the melancholy duck alive, and the hunters shoot the grumpy grandfather in his bath. It’s horrible, but it’s nothing compared to the goings-on in Beethoven’s Pastoral: happy, fun-loving Peter rapes his grumpy grandfather, the velvet-pawed cat has succumbed to alcoholism, the airy, twittering bird and the melancholy duck appear only in the form of terrines three days past their sell-by dates, the severe, somber wolf and the hunters have joined forces to take over the world. And Ravel’s Boléro! The severe, somber wolf passes itself off as the velvet-pawed cat, who pretends to be the airy, twittering bird, who is disguised as happy, fun-loving Peter, who takes himself for a hunter, while the hunter turns out to be the melancholy duck’s grumpy grandfather. Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is a horrific ordeal. And don’t get me started on Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique: a long string of unnatural acts, a sordid, macabre delirium I’d rather not recount in detail. There may be children listening.