The following short appears as part of a robust portfolio devoted to the French writer Éric Chevillard in Music & Literature no. 8. To view the complete contents of the volume and read extracts from other works, click here.
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 austere, black-dressed personages waggling their mallets, their sticks, their bows, as if it weren’t enough for a man to know how to handle a shovel, a drill, a saw, a ladle, an oyster fork. Sergei 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, of course. 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.
A narrator tells this fine story, since the audience could never begin to understand what’s going on from the narrative expressivity of the music alone, but in any case, it’s light-hearted, it’s lively, it works. We’ve all heard that concert three or four times in our childhood, and seen several cartoon versions as well. And of course not one Christmas went by, not one birthday, without some music-loving, short-fused aunt giving us yet another new recording of the thing, Peter and the Wolf, them again, narrated by some silver-tongued actor or other. They all have to shoulder that role sooner or later, it’s a must for a successful career, that and Hamlet and Don Juan, there’s no getting out of it.
But 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 in the story. I’m a victim of that syndrome myself, and it’s left me lost to music forever. Because while the story expressly written for Prokofiev’s instrumental playlet obviously works very nicely, the same is not true of all the other pieces in the classical repertory. But for me, you understand, 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, then, the nightmarish visions that come to me when I listen, for example, to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetic Symphony: the melancholy duck eats the eyes of the velvet-pawed cat, its claws shredding happy, fun-loving Peter’s belly as it dies. Then the muttering grandfather marries the melancholy duck while the hunters slaughter each other and the airy, twittering bird carries off the severe, somber wolf to devour it in its aerie! And 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 shell 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 that’s nothing compared to the goings-on in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: 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 divide the world between them, in four pieces, like an orange. And Ravel’s Bolero! What an abomination! The severe, somber wolf passes itself off as the velvet-pawed cat, which pretends to be the airy, twittering bird, which is disguised as happy, fun-loving Peter, who takes himself for a hunter, and that hunter turns out to be the melancholy duck’s grumpy grandfather. And then when it’s over, it all starts up again. For me Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a mortifying ordeal. I leave the auditorium humiliated for life. And don’t get me started on Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique: nothing more than a long string of unnatural acts, a sordid, macabre delirium I’d rather not recount in detail. There may be children listening.
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Éric Chevillard was born in 1964 in La Roche-sur-Yon in the west of France. He published his first novel, Mourir m’enrhume (Dying Gives Me a Cold), at the age of twenty-three, and has since gone on to publish more than twenty works of fiction, including The Crab Nebula, On the Ceiling, Palafox, Prehistoric Times, Demolishing Nisard, and The Author and Me.
Jordan Stump is a Professor of French at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the translator of some thirty works of (mostly) contemporary French fiction. His most recent translation is Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In.