The Music’s Loose: Peter and the Wolf
When I was a child I spent many a summer afternoon with my Sears record player and my stack of albums, among them Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Mine featured the narration of Boris Karloff, who later voiced the original animated version of How the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Like The Grinch, I enjoyed Peter and the Wolf because it was scary. I am like Jason, aged 3, son of poet A.E. (Alicia) Stallings.
Now my son (3) would just as soon listen to ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ which he says he ‘watches,’ because I guess to him it is like a movie, only scarier, perhaps, since the wolf as a sound rather than image on a small, two-dimensional screen seems freer to roam about the room and lurk in the dark corners of the house.”
Here is the poem Stallings wrote for her son about the wolf as a sound:
Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, aged 3
Eyes wide open, grinning ear to ear,
Balanced between the thrill of fear and fear,
He clutches at my skirt to keep me near
And will not let me leave him by himself
In the living room where Peter and the Wolf
Emerges from the speakers on the shelf
He likes Peter’s jaunty swing of strings,
The reedy waddle of the duck, the wings
That flute up in the tree, but still he clings,
(Even though for now it’s just the cat
Picking its sneaky way through sharp and flat);
He isn’t frightened of a clarinet,
And laughs at Grandfather’s bluster and bassoon,
But keeps his ear out for another tune
At the shadowy edge of the wood, and coming soon.
Where is the wolf? He asks me every chance
He gets, and I explain each circumstance;
Though it’s not as if he’s heard it only once—
You’d think he’d know by now. Deep in the wood,
Or under the tree, or sent away for good
To the zoo, I say, and think he’s understood.
And weary of the question and the classic,
I ask him where the wolf is. With grave logic
He answers me, “The wolf is in the music.”
And so it is. Just then, out of the gloom
The cymbal menaces, the French horns loom,
And the music is loose. The music’s in the room.
The purpose of Peter and the Wolf is to introduce various instruments of an orchestra. In this way it is similar to Benjamin Britten’s The Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra, but Prokofiev’s piece tells a story—a scary story.
Balanced between the thrill of fear and fear,”
That is the tightrope this musical story walks. As a child, I was both afraid of the wolf, and I couldn’t wait for him to sound his notes. As an adult, I relistened to the music while learning the poem. I still felt that thrill of fear when I heard the “cymbals menace and the French horns loom,” hoping that all would turn out all right.
I heard this poem before I read it, and only after I looked it up did I notice the rhymes. There are nine stanzas, each a tercet. Having rhymes every three lines made it easier to memorize; if I could remember “cat,” I could find my way to “flat” and “clarinet.”
To this day, every time I hear a clarinet solo I picture a cat.
I am easily scared and don’t like to watch frightening images, but Peter and the Wolf is audio. I’ve never seen a video adaptation, and I never want to. This film is all mine.
The poem is about facing fear. It’s about a parent’s tricky role to both be sensitive to a child’s emotions while also teaching them how to live with things that are scary. Safety is an illusion. Sometimes ducks get trapped. This world has hunters as well as wolves.
Listen! Can you hear it?
The music is loose. The music’s in the room.”
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist