avec Emmanuel Curt, percussions
Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Nice


Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Salle Garnier

Durée approximative 1h15

Sergueï Prokofiev
Pierre et le Loup… et le Jazz !

The Amazing Keystone Big Band
Sébastien Denigues, comédien

From classical to jazz: Peter and the Wolf revisited

Peter and the Wolf (1936) is one of the masterpieces of educational musical tales, alongside Claude Debussy’s La Boîte à joujoux (1913), Francis Poulenc’s L’Histoire de Babar (1945), and André Popp’s Piccolo, Saxo et compagnie (1956). Sergei Prokofiev received the commission from the Moscow State Academic Children’s Music Theater, where he used to take his son. Since Peter and the Wolf was intended for a state institution, at a time when Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge was beginning, the composer was careful to respect the themes of Soviet propaganda aimed at children.

Prokofiev therefore made Peter a Young Pioneer, in reference to the youth organization which, from 1922 to 1991 was the Soviet equivalent of Scouting. Peter escapes his grandfather’s watchful eye and goes to catch a wolf, with his friends the bird, the duck and the cat. Peter’s confrontation with the wolf risks ending badly. Several hunters rush to help Peter, but when they get there, he has already caught the wolf. Peter therefore embodies the values of the Young Pioneers (a sense of initiative, bravery and ingenuity), while also illustrating another cliché of Soviet propaganda – Man’s triumph over Nature (the wolf).

Peter and the Wolf is, nonetheless, not just a propaganda piece. Indeed, the educational values Prokofiev highlights are shared ones, reaching beyond the context of the former Soviet Union, both then and now. Moreover, Prokofiev’s music and the themes associated with each character have been largely responsible for making his works loved by even the most anti-Bolshevik ears. Peter and the Wolf is, in fact, one of the world’s most-played pieces of classical music. Prokofiev’s musical tale, recorded over 40 times, has also been the subject of many illustrated books and cartoons, starting with Walt Disney’s film, first shown in 1946, the year of the Cold War came into being.

Commissioned by Vienna Jazz Festival in 2012, the Amazing Keystone Big Band’s arrangement has the unique and remarkable quality of offering a true “translation into jazz” of Peter and the Wolf while keeping the educational dimension intact. Prokofiev’s original work presents, entertainingly, the instruments of the symphony orchestra, while this jazz version represents a real introduction to the big band. Here, Peter’s theme passes from the strings of the symphony orchestra to the string instruments of the big-band’s rhythm section (piano, guitar, double-bass). That of the bird flies from the flute to a combination of flute and muted trumpet. The duck’s theme goes from the oboe to the soprano saxophone, the cat’s from the clarinet to the tenor sax, the grandfather’s from the bassoon to the baritone sax, the wolf’s from the French horns to tuba and trombones and the hunters’ from the timpani to the drum kit.

This instrumental adaptation is accompanied by a stylistic transformation, which similarly reflects the educational dimension of Peter and the Wolf. As well as presenting the instruments of the big band, the arrangement allows us to trace the main developments that marked the history of jazz. The theme of Peter leaving the garden takes us back to its beginnings, in the 1920s, when the New Orleans style and gipsy jazz predominated. The bird’s theme echoes the mischievous lightness of 1930s swing. That for the duck, written as a slow waltz, suggests the elegiac and enchanting world cultivated by pianist Bill Evans, in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the grandfather grouses in a style reflecting the delightfully unhurried “shuffle” rhythm characteristic of 1950s rhythm and blues. The wolf’s wrath and frenzy hark back to a double development in jazz in the early 1960s, marked by the use of rock rhythms and the dissonant improvisations of free jazz. The cat takes us into the ensuing decade, with the funky jazz rhythms of which Herbie Hancock was one of the first exponents. Then the hunters’ gawky blues recalls the often-burlesque world of two other great figures in this music: Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.

While continuing a century-old tradition of “jazzing” classical works (Paul Whiteman’s Grand Fantasia from Wagneriana, 1928; Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, 1960; the Vienna Art Orchestra’s All That Strauss, 2007), the Amazing Keystone Big Band’s adaptation of Peter and the Wolf shows us that jazz has achieved a postmodern turnaround. At the same time as being innovative music, it has also become “classical.” In addition to delighting our ears, Peter and the Wolf offers us a final lesson – a work of art cannot be restricted to the culture and the era in which it came to be. Marked as it is by 1930s sovietism, Prokofiev’s tale has nonetheless traversed eras, geographical boundaries and stylistic barriers. Martin Guerpin

Photo The Amazing Keystone Big Band ©Maxime de Bollivier

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