Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is a combination of a children's story and a musical composition. A narrator narrates the story while an orchestra plays the corresponding music.

According to the English translation of the performance instructions:

Each character of this tale is represented by a corresponding instrument in the orchestra: the bird by a flute, the duck by an oboe, the cat by a clarinet playing staccato in a low register, the grandfather by a bassoon, the wolf by three horns, Peter by the string quartet, the shooting of the hunters by the kettle drums and bass drum. Before an orchestral performance it is desirable to show these instruments to the children and to play on them the corresponding leitmotivs. Thereby, the children learn to distinguish the sonorities of the instruments during the performance of this tale.

Why is Peter represented by a string quartet?

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about instrumental music and not literature. (Yes, it's a scope-challenging question, and this is me expressing my opinion on the scope question it raises, by using my vote.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:36
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    – user111
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:37
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    @Randal'Thor for what it's worth, Peter and the Wolf is an instrumental that is intended to accompany a written story. The Wikipedia page has more info.
    – user111
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 17:28
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    I'm voting to re-open. We've got questions about illustrations and book materials; the music in Peter and the Wolf is an auditory equivalent of the illustrations in a heavily-illustrated picture book. This argument might not fly with purely instrumental works, but Peter is not purely instrumental. It has critical lexical elements that would be part of any good answer.
    – BESW
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 20:59
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    I agree with @BESW and am voting to reopen for the same reason. Instrumental music can be on topic if it's associated with some kind of text that we can analyze. Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 4:58

3 Answers 3


the cat by a clarinet playing staccato in a low register

On my reading, at least, it is not entirely true that each character is represented by an instrument, but rather by a combination of theme and timbre. Prior to the cat's appearance in the narration, the clarinet plays an accompanying role with the bassoon (grandfather, also unintroduced), accompanying the flute and oboe. It is possible that this is meant to imply that the cat and grandfather are already spying from afar, but I don't think this is a strong interpretation: the low staccato clarinet comes out with a unique timbre that keeps it distinct from the oboe and bassoon, a timbre which these early clarinet appearances avoid entirely. Representing Peter with the string quartet frees up individual string instruments to be used similarly to the clarinet in these "non-cat" passages; to be used with a different sound that doesn't put Peter in the spotlight.

The reason for these breaks from "instrument-characterization" is that the work is made up of relatively few themes that are heavily repeated, so something is needed to keep it interesting. Peter's theme is one of the most repeated, so giving him the string quartet allows for more variations, again for interest.

String instruments also sound quite similar to each other, so this solution has the added benefit of avoiding the timbrical confusion of which specific string instrument represents Peter; rather than one arbitrary string instrument that the audience may not be able to keep track of, it is the volume and range of the quartet working together that unambiguously represents Peter.

Of course this is all speculation, but to the best of my knowledge, Prokofiev never commented on why he chose the instruments he did; speculation is all we have.

  • No problem with speculation as long as it's well supported :-) Welcome to the site!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 26, 2020 at 14:07

Peter is represented by the string quartet because he is the main character.

In most types of orchestral work that is NOT a concerto (that is, an extended solo performance of an instrument), the string section is the "main character", so to speak. They are the largest section by far in the orchestra, and often employ the "body" of many works, with brass and woodwind being the added "color" or "sound" in a symphonic work.

This runs true of virtually any "full orchestral work" where strings are present. Sometimes the brass may get a solo here and there, and the woodwinds may carry the melody, but the main body of the piece is is the string, though they may sometimes take a backseat and give the spotlight to some other instruments.

Of course, "Peter and the Wolf" isn't a completely full orchestral piece, but it uses a good majority of the instrumentation employed in full symphonic composition. Peter, as the main character, leads the story, and everything revolves around Peter (more or less), like how orchestral music is often centered on the strings.

This also makes sense in the explanation, as it states,

"Thereby, the children learn to distinguish the sonorities of the instruments during the performance of this tale.

Part of the reason for the existence of "Peter and the Wolf" is to teach children about the different sounds of instruments and how they all work together to make music (or tell a story). By having the entire string section (not merely just say the violins) represent Peter is important, because it engrains into the children's early about the importance of the strings in an orchestral piece.

The instrumentation also creates auditorial imagery. By listening to the leitmotif of Peter, one can imagine a jolly little lad skipping around, full and vibrant with energy.

The final reason is I think commented a bit by Peter Smith, and it's to distinguish between texture and timbre. It's very interesting to note that each instrument has its own unique timbre:

  • Flute: Light, airy, and clear.
  • Oboe: Darker, more "reedy", (kind of sounds like a duck, doesn't it?)
  • Clarinet: Full, airy, and "fluffy"
  • Bassoon: Darker and heavier than the oboe.
  • Strings: Light, majestic, and vibrant
    -French Horns/Brass: Menacing and loud
  • Timpani: Short and loud

In a full orchestra, strings tend to function as one unit, rather than detached. This works well in their favor because strings have a timbre that harmonizes well together. So I think having the full string section represent Peter probably speaks to the complexity of humans, similar to how the hunters are represented by a mixture of trumpets and woodwinds.


This is a peculiar question, and it is hard to imagine what could possibly answer it. But the following speculation was suggested to me by a relative:

Human voices are mixtures of tonalities recognized by our ear, and animals seem to make a more limited range of sounds. By analogy, string quartets which are capable of making a wider range of kinds of sounds than (say) oboes, are more suited to representing the human voice.

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    Any evidence? maybe a quote? Getting anything from Prokofiev's notes would be best, but is unlikely, but I'm sure there are musical analysis of the piece. Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 1:38
  • As I said, this is speculation. No, I have no evidence. Yes, Prokofiev's notes (or letters, or diary) might well contain conclusive evidence one way or another. But it's outside my field and I am without resources to find it. So as far as I am concerned the matter rests there. Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 1:53
  • It could be that Prokofiev used a string quartet not to represent human vocal complexity, but human psychological complexity (compared to that of animals). Many consider Beethoven's string quartets the highest expressions of psychological complexity. Commented May 27, 2020 at 14:19

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