Peter and the Commisar

Several years ago we produced an hour long program on Peter and the Wolf for KFLA’s Wave Project. After the broadcast we posted it here, in case you’d lie to go back and hear it. At the time we did not have a copy of Allan Sherman’s 1964 album Peter and the Commissar. Accompanied by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Sherman satirizes the state of the arts in the Soviet Union with the story of Peter’s effort to have his original theme approved by the tone-deaf commissars of music.

Prokofiev would have likely appreciated the intentions of Peter and the Commissar, even if he would have been forced to do so in private. His work after returning to the Soviet Union in 1936 was frequently constrained by the Union of Soviet Composers, a division of the Ministry of Culture. With his years of success in the United States and France, Prokofiev was often seen as an outsider and his works scrutinized for “anti-democratic” or formalist expressions.

Prior to producing Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev composed a cycle of piano pieces for children about which we previously posted here. His work in the following period fit firmly within the strictures of Soviet realism, including the collection of mass songs using the works of Ministry sanction poets and the score to Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. This was rearranged in cantata form the following year and, along with his music from Lieutenant Kije, was one of the first film scores to become accepted as essential canon.

Sherman had his own struggles, although they were not as severe as those faced by composers in the Soviet Union. His was often refused the rights to release his song parodies by the likes of Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers or the Gershwins. This is one of the reasons he used songs by lesser-known composers as the subject of his satires, such as Marchetti and Féraudy, French songwriters whose “Fascination” Sherman reworked as “Automation.”

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