Reconsidering the Timeless Tale of Peter and the Wolf

By Eric Dundon


Countless children and adults have been introduced to orchestral music since the first performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale Peter and the Wolf in 1936. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has teamed up with the Endangered Wolf Center in suburban St. Louis and music educators around the world to change the narrative and negative stereotypes about wolves perpetuated by Peter and the Wolf.


Lucky, a rare maned wolf, visited the SLSO's Education Concert on February 16, 2022. Lucky, who lives at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, is an ambassador for the center, helping to share the news about why wolves are an important part of the ecosystem and dispelling misconceptions about wolves perpetuated in culture, including through Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

In the now-classic work, Peter, a Young Soviet Pioneer (the Soviet version of a Boy Scout), lives with his grandfather in the woods with a cast of animal characters including a cat, a duck, and a bird—each represented by a different musical motif. A wolf emerges from the forest, scary and ferocious in Prokofiev’s depiction using a menacing musical statement in the horns. By the end of the piece, Peter, his animal friends, and hunters, capture the wolf and take it to the zoo.


Over the years, Prokofiev’s musical choices and depictions of the animal characters—particularly the wolf—have been discussed and debated. Some performances of the piece have even been altered to rewrite Prokofiev’s story.


The SLSO has taken this discussion a step further through its Family Concert and Digital Concert presentation of Peter and the Wolf. The Family Concert is at 3:00pm, Sunday, February 20, 2022. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early for activities presented in partnership with the Endangered Wolf Center designed to teach about the importance of wolves.


Filmed in the SLSO’s home at historic Powell Hall using the institution’s high-definition camera system and conducted by SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève, the Digital Concert is available to music educators now through January 2023 and is available to the public beginning February 22, 2022. In addition to a performance of Peter and the Wolf, the Digital Concert is supplemented with educational interviews and on-site footage from the Endangered Wolf Center in suburban St. Louis.


Jessica Ingraham, the SLSO’s Director of Education, explained why the SLSO chose to create a new perspective on a musical story that many already know.


“Prokofiev wrote this piece in the 1930s, before we understood the importance of wolves to our ecosystems,” she said. “A fresh view on this classical piece frame Peter and the Wolf in new ways for students, sparking discussions about Prokofiev’s musical choices and ecology.”


Both the Family Concert and the Digital Concert explore Prokofiev’s compositional choices and all the things he did not know about wolves when he wrote the piece. These new lessons frame the performance of Peter and the Wolf in news ways for students, and challenge long-held misinformed beliefs about the keystone species.


In addition to the Family Concert and Digital Concert, the SLSO adapted Peter and the Wolf for music educators and classrooms, complete with classroom exercises and activities that further drive discussions about wolves and reinforce musical lessons from Peter and the Wolf.


“The staff of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Endangered Wolf Center have managed to take materials that could easily be old hat and create a fresh perspective for this masterwork,” said Katie Jones, an elementary music educator at Prairie View Elementary School in Wentzville, Missouri, who has used the Peter and the Wolf Digital Concert in her classroom. “Many students commented that they had previously thought of wolves to be scary but now had a better understanding of the important role that wolves play in our ecosystem.”


In one classroom activity, students are asked to rewrite the theme for the wolf using the information gained in the Digital Concert interviews. At the end of the SLSO’s version of Peter and the Wolf, the wolf isn’t treated like a menace, nor captured and taken to a zoo. Instead, it is rescued and relocated to the Endangered Wolf Center, where it can live in the safety of the sanctuary with other wolves.


The strategic partnership with the Endangered Wolf Center serves to place classical music in the context of today’s world.


“Expanding classical content with other real-world settings such as the Endangered Wolf Center is a wonderful connection to help students engage with music in their world. I hope we'll continue to see more digital collaborations like this in the future,” Jones said.


Digital Concerts are easily accessed the SLSO’s website, slso.org/learning. Since launching its Digital Concerts and programming in 2020, the SLSO has reached more than 65,000 educators and students in 42 states and 15 countries.


“By creating and sharing digital concerts, the SLSO has done an exceptional job of reaching a much larger student audience,” Jones said. “These digital concerts are a fabulous resource that I hope will be continued even in the post-pandemic years to come.”


 

Eric Dundon is the SLSO's Public Relations Manager.