Years of Travel
The Return Home
Fifty years after his death in 1953 the music of Prokofiev
is more popular than ever. His large catalogue includes 133 completed
numbered works with many pieces of juvenilia also known. Because of
his excellent technical education received at the St. Petersburg Conservatory
from Rimsky-Korsakov and others, his scores present no problems of interpretation
in spite of his very personal, even exotic, musical style. His intentions
are clear, however difficult they may be to execute.
He showed excellence, innovation and a high degree
of individuality in every musical form. Much of the time one can easily
identify his music from hearing only a few bars. Yet his catalogue contains
many surprises and the range of his expression is wide and deep, reflecting
the extraordinary extent of his genius.
Like many composers, he expressed great humanitarian
spirit through his music. In person he was rude, irascible, infantile,
capable of devastating insults. Those who could accept love on his terms
remained his friends, or, at least, allies; but he made many enemies.
Then during his very last years he suddenly became a "nice guy,"
kind, courteous, considerate, supportive. He had always loved playing
for children and was said to have a special ability to communicate with
Prokofiev left Russia in 1918 and returned in 1936;
he viewed the eighteen years he spent living outside Russia as an isolated
episode. He considered himself a true Russian composer. This is in contrast
to Stravinsky, Glazunov and Rachmaninoff who left Russia at about the
same time and for some of the same reasons, but returned only on brief
visits. Having travelled more than most composers and having gone completely
around the world, he eventually went home and stayed there for the last
17 years of his life.
Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born at 5.00 in the
afternoon in Sontsovka (now Krasnoje), Ukraine, on April 23, 1891 (New
Style; the date in the Ďold styleí [Julian] calendar then in effect
was April 11). Sontsovka/Krasnoje with a population of 1000 (1950) is
too small to show on most maps and is about 130 km north of Zdanov,
a port city on the Black Sea. The nearest train station is at Krasnoarmeyski
a 25 km carriage ride away. The largest building in town is and was
the church. The village has put up a statue and several plaques in honour
of its most famous native son. The land is flat, barely rolling, with
few trees but many colourful flowers in the Spring. As a result the
sky, its clouds and mysteries loomed very large, its lights very bright
during the dark nights.
His fatherís family were small property owners, his
motherís family were originally serfs. Sergey Alekseyevich Prokofiev
was an agricultural scientist employed by the local landowner, Sontsov,
to improve the productivity of his estate. Maria Grigoryevna Prokofieva
(née Zhitkova) was a skilled amateur pianist and particularly
enjoyed playing the early Beethoven piano sonatas, the works of Chopin
and of Anton Rubinstein whom she considered to be a much better composer
than Tchaikovsky. "Mozart effect" or no, the infant Prokofiev
went to sleep many nights hearing his motherís piano playing. He had
his first piano lessons at age four, and was writing music by age five;
all of these pieces were written down and saved in a decorative notebook.
He had absolute pitch and could name any note he heard played, or play
any note he heard.
His two sisters had died very young and Prokofiev was
therefore an only child. His father taught him mathematics and science;
his mother taught him arts and letters, being careful to allow his natural
curiosity to set the pace of the lessons. She included Bible lessons
because such knowledge was then still considered the basis of a liberal
arts education. Governesses taught him French and German. Although his
father was an Atheist, he believed religion was good for the people
and attended church on important religious holidays with his family
as part of his community responsibilities. By the age of 10 Prokofiev
was already quite a good chess player and he maintained his enthusiasm
for chess throughout his life. His parents were politically progressive
but not radical; they put a great deal of time and effort into improving
the education available to the agricultural workers in Sontsovka.
We can have no exact way of knowing what this shy,
quiet child was thinking. A clue to his mental state comes from the
only fairy tale he composed himself, Peter and the Wolf. He put
some of his finest and most personal music into this composition, and
was deeply gratified by the favourable reaction of his public. Like
Prokofiev, Peter is a bright boy who lives in the country. He has no
friends, no brothers or sisters, and no parents! But we know that Prokofiev
had a responsible father and devoted, doting mother who encouraged his
musical studies. But it is possible under these circumstances to still
feel utterly alone in the world. In Peterís world, his only family is
his grandfather who has no function beyond warning him not to go beyond
the bounds of conventionality, something Peter and Prokofiev did at
once without a secondís hesitation.
Peter is not completely alone; he has imaginary friends:
animals that talk. Nature is beautiful and musical. Then, Evil comes
into his world, from Nature, or from nowhere in particular. Peter and
his imaginary friends just barely manage to save the situation when
they are rescued ó not by family or friends, certainly not by Jesus,
but by a force of good that comes from nowhere in particular, some hunters
wandering by. And, with everything settled, Peter is then free to go
on with his adventures with his imaginary friends. (I agree with the
Disney artists that the final joyful instrumental flourish depicts the
duck escaping alive from the wolfís stomach; otherwise it would not
be so happy an ending.)
Prokofiev also set other, more traditional, fairy tales
in music. In Romeo and Juliet we have more people who defy convention
and go beyond it and are very happy about that. Then Romeo makes the
mistake of doing the conventional thing, avenging a slain kinsman, and
everything falls apart. Prokofiev also set The Ugly Duckling
and Cinderella, favourite stories of lonely children, where family
and friends do nothing but cause pain, and rescue and eventually glory
comes from powerful forces outside. Some versions of Ugly Duckling
are quite mild. Russian fairy tales are often very bloody; Prokofiev
set the Western version of Cinderella. But in Prokofievís Ugly
Duckling, written when he was 23, the duckling nearly freezes to
death in the Winter after being driven away by the duck family. In the
Spring when he sees the swans coming toward him he expects them to kill
him. If this reflects Prokofievís personal childhood anxieties, they
were very deep indeed.
Living in a flat country with little vegetation, as
Prokofiev did, he knew as I know that the horizon is false. It is no
boundary, but rather a perpetual lure, a constant reminder that there
is another space just beyond. Prokofiev in observing nature was well
aware of another fact of living in a very cold dry climate: for a number
of months of the year, hydrogen oxide is a mineral. Snow is like sand;
it doesnít melt although it can evaporate. Ice is like glass, and it
is beautiful in its many sparkling forms. Russian music has always been
full of sparkle, depicting ice crystals as well as the stars. Ice is
beautiful, but it is deadly; it is hard and sharp and can cut you, it
is cold and can suck the life out of you. Prokofiev himself described
the sometimes cruel brilliance in his music as "steel" but
it could just as well have been ice. But ice or steel there was a hardness
under the soft surface in all of Prokofievís music. It might be a clocklike
andante rhythm (from Haydn?), a pulsing bass drum, a bitter chord, or
the hard glitter of percussion. In Romeo and Juliet at the peak
moment of passion when the loversí warm bodies are pressed together
for the last time, Prokofiev introduces the military snare drum (and
the bass drum) into the orchestral texture. Is this just a reminder
that Romeo and Juliet is at heart an anti-war story, or does
it represent the cruel inexorability of fate? Or is this also the brittleness
that Prokofiev finds inseparable from beauty?
Throughout his career, Prokofiev never wrote a single
note of religious music, this in sharp contrast to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov
who was a composer of the Tsarís royal chapel, and Stravinsky, his older
colleague, who remained a professing Catholic throughout his life. During
his conservatory studies, an attempt was made by his family in St. Petersburg
to get him to go to church, but with no success.
He was eight years old when his mother felt the time
had come to take him by carriage and train to Moscow. His first experience
in the theatre was a performance of Gounodís Faust and it moved
him profoundly. This was followed by Borodinís Prince Igor, and
by Tchaikovskyís Sleeping Beauty ballet at the Bolshoi. He had
been writing piano pieces since he was five, but upon his return from
the first trip to Moscow he immediately wrote an opera "The
Giant" the score of which was bound elaborately and kept on
the piano. The following year he was taken to Moscow again and then
to St. Petersburg for more opera and ballet. His mother obtained an
audition with Sergey Taneyev, pupil and friend of Tchaikovsky and Director
of the Moscow Conservatory. Taneyev agreed that advanced lessons should
begin at once and arranged to have the 28 year old Reinhold GliŤre spend
Summers at Sontsovka giving private lessons in composition to ĎSeryozha.í
Taneyev remained an interested friend and wanted to receive regular
reports on Prokofievís progress.
GliŤre was an excellent teacher and became a family
friend. In the evenings Prokofiev would accompany him on the piano while
Glière played the violin in Mozart violin and piano sonatas. Prokofievís
mother who taught piano in Sontsovka learned much about music instruction
from GliŤre. She never tried to interfere in his lessons for which he
was grateful. But even though GliŤre taught Prokofiev in detail how
to construct each kind of sonata movement, how to lay out large works,
even elementary orchestration, we donít hear GliŤreís music in Prokofievís
music, other than the love of large forms and large orchestras. Prokofiev
always knew what he wanted to say and was impatient to get to saying
it. He was grateful for knowledge of how, but needed no teaching of
During these years Prokofiev was "at school"
virtually every waking moment. He had lessons from his mother, lessons
from his father, lessons from GliŤre, either in person or as exercises
through the mail. If he had any spare time he played Ď21í with the chamber
maid ó in French or German. While he occasionally referred to his piano
pieces as "little dogs", he also had two real puppies, Shango
(Named after the Nigerian God of Fire and Thunder) and Bobrik (Ukrainian
for castor, originally an odorous medicinal substance extracted
from the glands of beavers. Puppy Bobrik must have had a bad smell!);
Shango had chronic ear infections and required medication and treatment.
Prokofiev was cranky much of the time, complaining that what he really
wanted to do was write operas and symphonies, whereas he was constantly
being admonished to do his exercises first. He wanted to explore music,
so he would play as many piano pieces as possible without learning any
one of them well, and was scolded for that, too.
Eventually the question of Prokofievís education reached
a new level. There were no adequate high schools locally; Moscow and
St. Petersburg were each a two-day journey away. Eventually, after much
argument and many tears, it was agreed that Prokofiev and his mother
would move to St. Petersburg, at least for the Winter, and Father would
join them there whenever he could. Sonstov generously agreed to allow
him to absent himself from his duties frequently. Everybody would be
together in Sontsovka in the Summer. After many trips back and forth
and lessons of varying degrees of success, it was agreed that Prokofiev
would enter the Conservatory and take his high school classes there.
But this quickly proved unworkable because of the time required for
music courses. It was decided that all non-music classes at the Conservatory
were to be cancelled and Prokofiev went back to being home schooled
by his parents in the evenings and on weekends. Prokofievís father asked
Prokofiev to approach one of the students in the academic curriculum
and ask him to make a list of the subjects being discussed, for which
he was to be rewarded by regular gifts of boxes of chocolate. That way
Prokofievís education could be kept up with his contemporaries.
For the first time in his life he met boys his own
age with similar interests, and quickly established lifelong friendship
with Miaskovsky. Some other friends were judged "unsuitable"
and it was demanded of him that he stop seeing them, and he obeyed.
But Prokofiev had no social skills; he was rude, presuming, naive, disrespectful,
and tended to blow up if things did not go his way. He retained this
personality of the spoiled bright child for many years to come, and
it was to cause him much grief and many setbacks and to make attaining
his true recognition much more difficult.
The 1905 uprising caused disruption in daily life and
some fears, but things quickly went back to "normal," except
that Rimsky-Korsakov had been expelled from the Conservatory for siding
with the activists. But next year he was readmitted and everything seemed
fine for the time being. It seems unbelievable to us today that the
events to come cast no more shadow before them. Middle class life in
Russia was orderly and prosperous and even progressive people seemed
to feel that serious problems could be avoided.
Prokofiev had an unusual physical appearance, with
a long face, eyes set close, with very prominent lips and forward chin
and mouth, this from his motherís side of the family. (He was occasionally
referred to as a ĎWhite Africaní) Pianistic success was facilitated
by his enormously long fingers. Because of his shyness he did not smile
much in public, but when he did, as in his wedding picture, his face
was transformed with an embarrassed broad grin. During his early years
his face was immobile in an expression of bright curiosity which many
chose to interpret as conceit or contempt, and reacted accordingly.
He was condescending towards inferiors and refused to show deference
to notables. He took a special delight in watching quarrels in the street,
even peeking through windows, which has been excused as being a natural
expression of his theatrical instincts. By his late 30s his brow had
taken on a permanent furrow and his habitual expression from then on
always held a trace of a frown. At this time also he took to wearing
small wire frame glasses, similar to his fatherís. His whole life long
he was accused of being spoilt and accustomed to privilege.
Rimsky-Korsakov was concerned that Russia did not need
any more talented musical amateurs like Mussorgsky, Russia needed musical
technocrats. Thus Prokofiev received a rigorous musical education at
the St. Petersburg conservatory and his early works are perfectly constructed.
Like Wagner, and unlike Beethoven, Prokofiev simply wrote out his music,
and that was that. Only one major work was ever subjected to serious
revision (the Fourth Symphony), and that very late in his life. On the
other hand, he was not unwilling to make changes in his music to suite
the intended purpose. He would write his film music so it could easily
be edited to fit the filmed action, and was hence a valued collaborator.
He added a cheerful coda to the Seventh Symphony in response to criticism
that the work ended on too depressing a note.
His teachers were Liadov (composition, harmony, counterpoint),
Tcherepnin (conducting), and Alexander Winkler (piano). Orchestration
was taught by Rimsky-Korsakov, who was also Administrator of the Conservatory,
and Prokofiev openly, tactlessly, criticised his methods. Prokofiev
also alienated Glazunov, who was later to be Shostakovichís teacher,
such that Glazunov opposed him at times and had to be pushed out on
stage to announce Prokofievís winning of the Rubinstein Prize in piano.
For all his at times exotic orchestral sound, his scores
look surprisingly ordinary and easy to read, for he achieved his brilliant
effects using very simple, direct, and ingenious means. At times he
would write his works Ďoní C major, that is without key signature, and
just add the accidentals as necessary without bothering to notate elaborate
changes of key.
The question of the influence of Russian folk music
on his compositions is complex. Prokofiev was certainly no man of the
people. He was the son of an employee of the local landowner; the peasant
boys he played rough and tumble with were required to address him in
the formal second person while he addressed them in the familiar second
person form. His idol Tchaikovsky, his teachers GliŤre and Rimsky-Korsakov
and his elder colleague Stravinsky all made very extensive use of folk-tunes
and quotations in their music, whereas only Prokofievís second string
quartet can be shown to make direct use of such material. His music
sounds nothing like that of his closest associates, Miaskovsky and GliŤre,
nor like that of his composition teacher Liadov. However it is claimed
that, like Bartók, Prokofiev was fascinated by certain harmonic
and rhythmic aspects of the very oldest folk materials. Examples can
currently be found in Bulgarian womenís ensembles today but at the time
of Prokofievís birth were probably to be heard in his home town. These
musical qualities could have formed a basis for his austere, astringent
harmonic and rhythmic style. A Russian friend says she can hear the
"Russianness" in all of Prokofievís music, but none of it
in, say, late Stravinsky.
Also in this regard there is a story in Prokofievís
diary that deserves to be quoted: In 1902 Prokofiev visited Taneyev
and they played on the piano Prokofievís newly finished student symphony.
Ď... Taneyev said, "Bravo! Bravo! But the harmonic treatment is
a bit simple. Mostly just ... heh, heh ... I, IV, and V progressions."
That little "heh, heh" played a very great role in my musical
development. It went deep, stung me, and put down roots. When I got
home I broke into tears and began to rack my brains trying to think
up harmonic complexities .... An eleven-year old boy had visited a professor;
he had remembered some of his comments and paid no heed to others ...
Only four years later my harmonic inventions were attracting attention.
... eight years later [when] I played one of my most recent compositions
for Taneyev, he muttered, "It seems to have a lot of false notes.
..." At this I reminded him of his "heh, heh." He put
both hands to his head and exclaimed not without humour, "So I
was the one to nudge you onto such a slippery path!"...í [tr. Guy
YEARS OF TRAVEL
When Prokofiev set off across Siberia to fulfil a concert
engagement in New York he expected to be back in Russia within the year.
Even though his train was stopped several times due to military engagements
he, along with many others, seriously underestimated the extent of the
civil war then in progress. In New York he was greeted warmly by the
émigré community and his concerts went very well.
He met Carolina (Lina to her friends) Ivanovna Llubera Codina; it had
taken her some time to get up the nerve to approach him, but as soon
as he saw her he knew he wanted to see her again. She had been born
in Spain, but her mother was Polish and Alsatian. Lina spoke several
languages including a little Russian, dressed very stylishly, and had
friends in many countries. She was very beautiful and just beginning
her career as a singer. Over the next years he would see her more and
more frequently in the US and in Europe as their friendship slowly ripened
Prokofiev had always been generally very healthy, but
in New York in 1919 he fell ill with scarlet fever, which developed
into diptheria. He recovered quickly and continued with his very busy
Over the next years he travelled frequently back and
forth to Europe frequently arranging concerts and premiering new works.
He encountered Lina frequently as she pursued her operatic career. People
continued to leave Russia for France, including many of his friends
who brought his manuscripts with them. His mother had endured serious
hardships during her escape from Russia via Constantinople and eventually
arrived in Paris, never to regain her robust health. About this time
it was discovered that Lina was pregnant, so Prokofiev and Lina were
married. They had settled with Prokofievís mother in Paris by the time
their first son Sviatoslav was born in February of 1924. Mother approved
of his marriage to Lina and enjoyed living in their Paris household
with her grandson briefly before her death in December of 1924 at the
age of 68. Even though Prokofiev and his fiancée did not
marry until after she became pregnant, he clearly wanted children, and
was a devoted father committed to giving his children the best he could.
He spent much time playing with them even though the responsibilities
of being head of the household required many concert engagements to
earn enough money.
He reportedly carried with him two notebooks in which
he wrote down musical ideas as they occurred to him. When someone would
approach him to offer a commission, during the fee negotiations, Prokofiev
would teasingly say, "Shall I write from the red notebook, or from
the blue notebook?" Clearly, if offered a little more money, he
could try a little harder. For all of his naive personal manner, he
was shrewd and determined in fee negotiation.
After his initial successful concerts, the USA offered
Prokofiev good money, but also argument and unpleasantness; he thought
American audiences boorish and unsophisticated. European audiences and
impresarios were better able to cope with his autocratic personality.
Diaghilev knew how to manipulate his two "sons" (Stravinsky
and Prokofiev) and was able to coax excellent works from them and maintain
a good working relationship, resulting in success all around.
The death of Diaghilev and Prokofievís legendary quarrel
with Diaghilevís successor Balanchine over the Prodigal Son ballet
cut him off from the ballet world. Balanchine called him a "bastard"
and Prokofiev called Balanchine Ď... nothing but a lousy ballet master
...í and dismissed him contemptuously. The quarrel ran deep and strong.
In severing him from the ballet world it also severed him from what
had a good source of income. Then his mother died. Koussevitzky and
many others moved to the USA. He declined to join them. Prokofievís
roots in the Paris seemed to be being cut off one by one.
During Prokofievís composition training the model works
used by his teachers as the basis for musical analysis had mostly been
Beethoven, to a lesser extent Mozart and Haydn. His early successes
in Paris had been with colourful music more or less intended to startle
and shock, and the audiences seemed to love it. In his 2nd symphony
he attempted a complex development of his style, a theme and variations
movement based on the model of Beethovenís Hammerklavier Sonata.
In this he thought to move toward a more mature and sophisticated architectural
style. But audiences and critics alike failed to appreciate the work.
The failure of this work shook him very deeply; he
took it as a warning not to move further in this direction. Even more
significant to him was the workís more sympathetic reception following
a performance in Russia. Thereafter Prokofiev tended to interpret every
success in the West as proof of his skill as a composer, every disappointment
as proof that the Western audiences did not understand him. Every bit
of good news from Russia pleased him profoundly, whereas bad news from
Russia he tended to dismiss. Inexorably, everything that happened became
one more step toward returning to Russia.
THE RETURN HOME
Gradually American audiences came to appreciate his
music and European music in general. Many other European musicians were
to move to the USA in the following years and establish émigré
colonies in New York and Hollywood. But Prokofiev was unaffected by
this trend, and continued to feel himself drawn back to Russia.
Written just before the final move to Russia, the Romeo
and Juliet ballet is probably his greatest single work, one which
clearly shows his "new" romantic, lyrical style. A number
of dances in the work could easily have been constructed by Haydn or
Beethoven; but the great melody at the tomb scene can have come from
no other source than the keening wail of peasants of the steppes. In
the Cinderella ballet Prokofiev showed a greater debt to Tchaikovsky;
but here the "clock scene" makes clear a debt to Haydnís "Clock"
Prokofiev was so sure of his genius that he did not
take seriously suggestions that in Russia he would have difficulties
with censorship and official disapproval, even though he was clearly
warned. During his visits there he had had arguments with officials,
and with his usual lack of tact insulted them, steadily making enemies,
yet he dismissed advice from friends that he was setting the stage for
trouble. Since Shostakovich had not yet become so well known in the
West, it has been suggested that Prokofiev may have thought he would
be so obviously the very greatest composer living in Russia that everyone
would have to admit that and pander to him, as people always had. Circumstances
must have shown him the error in this line of thinking, but once established
on his path he seemed unable to deviate from the course he had set for
At first he seemed secure in his status in Russia and
felt welcome and appreciated. But once his Paris household had been
dissolved and he and his family were irrevocably situated in Russia
things rapidly went from bad to worse. The 1938 attack on Shostakovich,
clearly intended to be a warning to all Soviet composers, began to affect
his popularity as well. Some new compositions were bluntly rejected,
scheduled performances of established works were cancelled. Some of
this was official ideological oppression, some of it was just the anger
and resentment of insulted musical bureaucrats who used their power
to teach him a lesson and control the loyalties of others. A far more
serious and general attack occurred in 1948.
Prokofievís error was in assuming that these declarations
were true invitations to serious discussion (they explicitly included
the phrase "comradely dialogue"), a real trial in which he
could defend himself and be vindicated. But it is probably true that
they were simply elaborately staged public pageants. The record shows
that Prokofiev wrote two lengthy and detailed confessions to the charges,
but it is also suggested that these documents were prepared by the authors
of the original declarations and that there was in fact nothing for
the affected composers to do but watch and listen and hope to survive.
For instance, Shostakovich insists he never wrote or said "A Soviet
artistís reply to just criticism" in regard to his 5th symphony.
Since that was the only acceptable reply, it was made for him to save
him from a false step. On other occasions it is reported that typed
out speeches of confession were pressed into the hands of the miscreants
as they were ordered forward to reply to their denunciations. In one
sense there was no ambiguity: music students were being told in the
most direct terms possible that they were not to imitate Prokofiev,
or death could be the result. Had it become necessary to kill Prokofiev,
for instance, to make this lesson clearer, there would have been nothing
he could have said, no act he could have performed which would have
prevented it. Prokofiev lived because it did not become necessary to
kill him, and for no other reason.
Prokofiev had many happy memories of Summer visits
to Kislovodsk in the Caucasus Mountains with his mother. In 1939 the
strain in Prokofievís marriage must have reached a critical level as
Prokofiev summered in Kislovodsk alone while Lina was elsewhere and
the boys were in summer camp. In Kislovodsk he met Maria-Cecelia (Mira)
Abramovna Mendelson, and quickly began to be friendly with her. She
was apparently a distant relation of Stalinís and some have suggested
she was planted to spy on him, or to break up deliberately his marriage
to the suspected Lina, or that she was able to intercede on his behalf
with Stalin. No credible evidence of any of these suggestions has been
discovered. But as a Soviet citizen and lifelong resident, Mira was
able to counsel and advise Prokofiev on Soviet internal politics and
helped him avoid even worse trouble with the authorities. After their
return to Moscow, Prokofiev and Mira continued to meet discreetly. In
1941 Prokofiev finally left his family and moved in with Mira at her
parentsí house until they could be granted their own apartment. Prokofiev
continued to provide financially for Lina and the boys.
In 1944 at a rest home in Ivanovo, Prokofiev adopted
a stray dog (possibly a Malamute) whom he named Zmeika ("Little
Dragon"). After dinner each evening he would walk among the tables
and collect scraps for the dog, who became a loyal friend and followed
him everywhere. When the dog was run over, Prokofiev was very depressed.
In January of 1945 Prokofiev had a dizzy spell which
was probably a heart attack and fell in his apartment, sustaining a
concussion. He was rushed to the hospital where severe hypertension
was diagnosed. For the eight years remaining in his life his health
would vary in its degree of weakness. He would be in and out of hospitals,
occasionally travelling to restful locations in the country. He kept
to a light work schedule by his doctors. But his low spirits could only
be mediated by work, and he continued to compose as much as he possibly
could. Some of his finest works remained to be written.
With Prokofiev ill and dodging brickbats from officialdom,
and living with his mistress apart from his wife, Prokofievís enemies
saw a chance to do some real damage. One must never underestimate the
hatred that ordinary talent has for true genius. Although the opera,
movie, and the plays exaggerate (and perhaps falsify) this situation
in the case of Mozart and Salieri there are other examples in history.
The absurd neglect of the magnificent music of Sir Donald Francis Tovey
is clearly due to resentment against him for his genius, for his critical
bluntness and rudeness; evidently passed down from teacher to student,
the otherwise inexplicable anti-Tovey sentiment is still strong in the
UK. Geniuses can make things hard on themselves because often they cannot
believe that what is so easy for them is impossible for others; they
tend to dismiss the less talented as stupid and/or lazy. Soviet Russia
provided many opportunities for the slightly talented to gain power
and punish genius, sometimes for their own gain, sometimes for their
own entertainment. Tikhon Krennikov and Dmitri Kabalevsky are two modestly
talented composers who are known to have intrigued against the Prokofievs.
It was 1948 before Prokofievís first marriage was dissolved
and he married Mira. In some ways the two Mrs. Prokofievs could hardly
be more unlike. Lina was Spanish, sophisticated, at home anywhere in
Europe, always dressed fashionably. Mira was Ukrainian, Jewish, had
lived all her life in the USSR and had never known "nice"
clothes. Lina was an opera singer with her own independent career, while
Mira was not very musical. But in both cases the courtships were very
long; friendship developed long before passion. But both women were
helpmates and valuable advisors: Prokofiev needed Lina to help him get
along in sophisticated European society. He needed Mira to help him
function in Soviet society. He could accept this kind of advice from
women but not from men.
Lina Prokofieva no doubt assumed that as a Spanish
citizen with many friends in the West and at the Western embassies,
she was safe from official disapproval, but in fact the opposite was
true: she was considered all the more dangerous. On February 20, 1948,
Lina was arrested by the State Security Police. There seems little doubt
that some evidence against her was falsified and that at least some
of the officials involved sincerely believed that she was guilty of
spying. Many friends tried to help her with no result, and Prokofiev
eventually warned people not to be too open in their support lest they
be arrested, too ó lest he be arrested, too. Even though she
was convicted of spying and sentenced to 20 years, Lina was treated
better than many. Her sons regularly sent her food packages and eventually
were allowed to visit her. After the death of Stalin, she was offered
release if she would confess, which she refused to do. She was assigned
light work duty, eventually released and allowed to leave the USSR,
and lived to a reasonable old age, indicating that her health had not
been severely compromised. Once outside Russia, she became heir to back
royalties on Prokofievís music performed in the West and was financially
secure. Prokofiev always believed himself partly responsible for her
suffering and the strain on him damaged his health and shortened his
life, but Lina never blamed her husband and to the last she was a champion
for the furtherance of his art and reputation.
In his later years of poor health he was criticised
for writing out his orchestral music (e.g., the 7th symphony) in piano
score format with annotations and leaving the preparation of the orchestral
score to associates. Naturally nothing was put down that the composer
did not approve of, and he was thus able to write more music particularly
at times when his health limited his energy. His personal orchestral
sound is strongly identifiable, so the charge that others orchestrated
his music for him is obviously unfair. Other composers (e.g. Bartók)
have done the same thing in varying degrees. In todayís world of commercial
music it is frequently the case that composer and orchestrator perform
completely separate functions and often they donít meet.
With Prokofiev demonstrating such extreme stubbornness,
one thing becomes clear: those who say his Russian music was dictated
by commissars are obviously off the mark. Whatever else happened in
Russia, Prokofiev wrote exactly what he wanted to write. His change
in style to a more lyrical less astringent style was something he wanted,
something that had been in process for some time before his moving to
Russia, as witness the Romeo and Juliet ballet and 2nd violin
concerto, both written before, or perhaps during, the move. However
a question may yet remain regarding a piece such as On Guard for
Peace written when Prokofiev was ill and frightened and in need
of money; it won him a second class Stalin Prize. The work is almost
never played today. But Valery Gergievís recent recording of the opera
Semyon Kotko shows that even when he was attempting to please
the commissars, Prokofiev was never less than brilliant. There is probably
much magnificent music buried behind these unpromising titles, and it
is to our benefit to explore it. Is the situation so very different
from the pre-Renaissance when the Catholic Church was the only music
patron and everything written was either an Ave Maria or a Te Deum or
a Mass of some kind? If persons of strong religious preferences refuse
to listen to this music on sectarian grounds they are cutting themselves
off from much beauty.
On the evening of March 5, 1953, Prokofiev was in his
study at home working on revisions to the Stone Flower ballet,
then in rehearsal at the Bolshoi. He and Mira had several visitors.
At 8 p.m. he had a severe dizzy spell accompanied by head pain, nausea,
and fever. The doctor was called, he was medicated; but by 9 p.m. his
breath had failed and he was dead. He was just short of 62 years old.
Stalin died of the same cause just 50 minutes later.
In respect of Prokofievís Atheism, a completely civil,
non-religious funeral service was held. David Oistrakh played the first
and last movements of the f minor Violin Sonata, and Samuel Feinberg
played Bach. A pine bough was laid on the coffin, as flowers were impossible
to find in Moscow due to Stalinís funeral the same day. Prokofiev rests
in the Novodovichy cemetery in Moscow. His second wife Mira died in
1968 and rests beside him there. His first wife Lina was released from
prison in 1956; in 1974 she was she allowed to leave the USSR, reclaimed
her Spanish citizenship, and moved to London. Lina died in London in
1989 and is buried next to Prokofievís mother in Paris. Prokofievís
eldest son Sviatoslav became an architect in Moscow, moving to Paris
in 1992 with his wife and son, Serge, and his wife and family. Prokofievís
second son Oleg became an artist living in London, where he also helped
translate and publish his fatherís diaries.
Despite Prokofievís enormous popularity at times during
his life, some of his major works were never performed during his lifetime.
He had continued composing during times of disappointment and neglect,
as working with music was the only drug which could ease his pain. War
and Peace in the complete 13 scene version was finally performed
only in 1957, The Fiery Angel was first performed in France in
1956. Semyon Kotko was staged successfully in Russia in 1970.
The Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution was
not performed anywhere until 1966!
His complete works were published in Russia in 1955.
Prokofiev was a musically talented child and received
an excellent musical education. He worked hard all his life and was
generally appreciated, although his determinedly individual musical
style and aloof, even rude and arrogant, personal manner did not contribute
to his popularity and led to personal and professional misunderstandings.
He was a performing concert pianist for a time and premiered most of
his own early works. In later years the cream of Russian artists competed
for the privilege of playing his new music in public.
He married twice, fathered 2 sons, had virtually no
personal friends, and was not directly influenced by any other living
musician; his earliest teachers were startled by his originality.
Prokofiev wrote works in every form, and his major
works today are available in recordings by the foremost artists of the
age attesting to his rank as one of the very greatest composers of our
time. His flute sonata, Op 94 is one of the anchors of the flute repertoire,
and his piano sonatas rank among the finest, and also among the most
difficult. His great romantic ballets rank with those of Tchaikovsky.
He was a true child of the 20th century in that two of his very greatest
works were film scores. Widely played as concert suites, these works
have dignified the form. His score for the Eisenstein film Alexander
Nevsky has contributed to making that film one of the dozen great
classic films of all time. His musical fairy tale for children Peter
and the Wolf remains enormously popular and was made into a film
by Disney. His seven operas have never matched the popularity of his
other works. He had great difficult arranging performances, and only
recently are they attaining the attention they deserve. During his life
Prokofiev despaired of hearing them performed and reused the music in
other instrumental works.
Prokofiev did not take composition students, he never
held a teaching post, his children did not become musicians. He did
not found a "school." His efforts to simplify musical notation
did not accomplish anything. Even though he was at times personally
abrasive, he is remembered kindly by virtually everyone who knew him.
Almost immediately upon his death official opposition to his music dissipated
and he was officially greatly honoured in Russia, which attitude has
continued to the present day. He has generally been considered less
popular than Shostakovich and somewhat more limited in style, but these
two names stand at the pinnacle of 20th century Russian music, if we
consider, as most do, that Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff ceased to be
ĎRussianí composers when they took up residence in the USA.
About 1960 I had a chance to see Tikhon Khrennikov,
who helped lead the 1948 attacks, in action up close. An international
music festival was held in Los Angeles to which composers from many
countries were invited, including Stravinsky and Milhaud, to present
their own music. In addition to the concerts a panel discussion was
held to discuss the state of classical music in the world today and
in the future. Blas Galindo represented Mexico, Lukas Foss and Elinor
Remick Warren represented the U.S, and Khrennikov the USSR. Iain Hamilton,
the British representative, opened the proceeedings by delivering an
eloquent, stinging attack on any and all censorship of the arts, and
Khrenikov applauded him. When it was Khrennikovís turn he began, speaking
through an interpreter, by flattering the audience for their taste and
committment to music. Then he spoke passionately about the lamentable
lack of a major broadcasting symphony orchestra in the US, and was applauded
enthusiastically. He continued in this vein saying things the audience
would agree with and soon had the audience cheering, applauding, and
laughing exactly on cue even though they couldnít understand a word
he said. By then he could have said anything at all and they would have
gone along with him. He showed himself to be a master crowd manipulator
and mass hypnotist. Of course by then the audience knew something else;
weíd all heard him conduct his first symphony the night before and we
knew he was not a musician to compare with Prokofiev.
Prokofievís catalogue includes 7 Symphonies, 5 Piano
concertos, 2 violin concertos, symphonie-concertante for cello, 2 String
Quartets, 1 flute sonata, 2 sonatas for violin and 1 for cello, 9 completed
piano sonatas, 7 operas, 5 major ballets, 8 film scores, and many miscellaneous
A basic library of Prokofievís music should include
the following works which will afford much pleasure in repeated listening:
Symphony #1, the "Classical"
Romeo and Juliet ballet (complete, or as a suite of
Suite from the opera "The Love of Three Oranges."
Piano Concerto #3
Violin Concerto #2
Flute Sonata Op 94 (the same music is also played as
Violin Sonata #2, Op 94a)
Piano sonata #7
Alexander Nevsky: Cantata based on the film score,
I recommend that one simply purchase those CDs available
easily at a favourable price, or choose versions by oneís favourite
artists. For instance, my favourite recordings of Symphonies 1 and 7
are on an EMI Classics for Pleasure issue #CD-CFP 4523 (one critic recently
nominated this recording for reissue in the GROTC list), and my favourite
Symphony #6 is on Naxos 8.553069. The choice of Heifetz or Perlman on
Violin Concerto #2 is entirely a matter of personal preference. Every
recording of the Fifth Symphony I have heard seems to fail to reach
clear to the heart of the music, which is probably not the fault of
the performers; conductors who concentrate on playing the notes and
avoid gushing (e.g., Dorati, Szell, Sargent and Reiner) tend to be more
successful. Stokowskiís recording of the Fifth Symphony is disappointing,
but Stokowskiís recordings of the ballet music excerpts are quite good.
Digital sound is especially favourable to Prokofiev due to his extensive
use of high and low percussion, sharp dynamic contrasts, and frequent
thick orchestral textures.
The following short list of exceptional recordings
will not constitute a representative overview of his úuvre:
The first violin sonata in f, Op 80, is recorded with
hair-raising intensity by Wanda Wilkomirska and Anne Schein on a Connoisseur
Society recording, CD 4079. This recording is currently out of print
but I have the personal assurances of the owner that it will be shortly
restored to the catalogue. This recording is a must-have for any Prokofiev
enthusiast and is worth any difficulty to obtain. It should carry a
warning label: do not listen with the lights off.
Bella Davidovich recorded piano arrangements of dances
from the Romeo and Juliet ballet on a Philips disk 412-742-2
which also includes the 3rd piano sonata and some Scriabin works. The
better you know this music in its orchestral form the more you will
be amazed and delighted by Ms. Davidovichís (and Prokofievís) abilities.
Barbara Nissman has very capably recorded the complete
piano works on CDs which are remarkable for the completeness of their
annotation. Every major section of each movement is indexed greatly
facilitating a careful study of the music.
The Peter and the Wolf "Suite" (that
is the music without the narration) is recorded by Stokowski on an Everest
disk EVC 9048. In this form the music is more readily appreciated by
adults who may have grown up with the narrated version but are now naturally
put off by its ickiness. The Disney version is available on video as
part of "Make Mine Music."
The Romeo and Juliet ballet was filmed out of
doors in Russia in 1954 starring Galina Ulanova and Yuri Zhdanov dancing
with the Bolshoi Ballet and with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducting.
This beautiful film is tremendously moving in spite of dated sound and
picture quality. Nearly 50 minutes of music is cut from this version,
but the core of the drama is intact. Available from several sources
on VHS and Laserdisc.
The Prodigal Son ballet starring Mikhail Baryshnikov
with the New York City Ballet is available on VHS in Volume 4 of "The
Balanchine Library" on Nonesuch 40179-3 (NTSC).
The Japanese music synthesiser artist Tomita produced
an interesting electronic pasticcio from a number of pieces of
Prokofievís music in his LP album "Bermuda Triangle" not yet
released on CD.
Most of the information in this essay has come from
Sergei Prokofiev by Harlow Robinson (1987). Prokofievís memoirs,
in the form of Prokofiev by Prokofiev, translated by Guy Daniels
and edited by David H. Appel (1979), have proven indispensable for the
early years. Sergei Prokofiev, Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings,
translated by Oleg Prokofiev and edited by Christopher Palmer contains
family photographs and some of Prokofievís short stories. Also consulted
were the article in New Grove by Dorothea Redepenning, Prokofiev
by Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson, Prokofiev, A Soviet Tragedy,
by Victor Seroff, several Soviet biographies, and a number of websites,
most notably Prokofiev.org.
General information and photographs: http://www.Prokofiev.org
Complete list of works, compiled by Onno van Rijen: http://home.wanadoo.nl/ovar/prokwork.htm
Born Sontsovka (now Krasnoje), Ukraine, April 23.
Piano lessons with mother. First piano compositions.
First trip to Moscow, sees Gounodís Faust and Borodinís Prince
Igor at the opera, Tchaikovskyís Sleeping Beauty ballet.
Later attends opera and ballet in St. Petersburg as well.
At Taneyevís suggestion, private study with GliŤre in Sontsovka during
Begins study at St. Petersburg Conservatory. Blunt, irreverent manner
offends many. Returns to Sontsovka in the Summers.
Begins lifelong friendship with Miaskovsky.
"Opus 1," Piano Sonata in f, actually his 50th composition.
Performs Opus 1 in Moscow and begins conducting and playing in public.
Father dies; P. and mother sever connections to Sontsovka.
Travels to France, England, Switzerland with mother. Scandal at premiere
of 2nd piano concerto in Russia.
Graduates from Conservatory; wins Rubinstein prize playing his own
1st piano concerto. Travels alone to England via Stockholm. Meets Diaghilev.
Back in St. Petersburg by August 1. Beginning of war, is exempted from
Travels to Italy via Greece. Meets Stravinsky. Diaghilev rejects Alla
and Lolly, contracts P. to write Chout.
Successful premier of Scythian Suite in Russia.
Flees Russian Civil War via Siberia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. Successful
New York debut.
Meets future wife Lina in New York.
Settles Mother in Paris. Successful Los Angeles debut.
Scythian Suite and Chout premiered in Paris to great
success. Love for Three Oranges and 3rd Piano Concerto premiered
in Chicago to local critical success. New York critics retaliate viciously.
Leaves USA to settle in Bavaria with mother. Richard Strauss is a neighbour.
Enthusiastic London and Paris debuts of 3rd Piano concerto. More arguments
with Stravinsky, friendship with Koussevitzky.
Settles in Paris with wife and ailing mother. Son Sviatoslav born February
24. Many concerts to earn money. Mother dies December 13.
Unsuccessful Paris premiere of 2nd Symphony.
Successful American tour organised by Koussevitzky. Italian tour.
Triumphal return to Russia via Riga, Latvia. Richter, Gilels and Oistrakh
in the audience at P.ís Odessa concert. Successful Paris premiere of
Pas díAcier ballet. Bruno Walter rejects Fiery Angel for
Second son Oleg born in Paris, December 14.
Successful premieres of The Gambler, 3rd symphony, and Prodigal
Son ballet. Diaghilev dies August 19. Brief return to Russia.
Very successful tour of USA and Canada sponsored by Koussevitzky. Meets
Stokowski. Cool reception for premiere of 4th symphony in Boston, USA.
Successful premiere in Washington, D.C. of 1st string quartet. Paul
Wittgenstein bluntly rejects 4th piano concerto.
Visit to Russia and publicly stated intention to return. Cool reception
to Paris premiere of On the Dnieper ballet.
Fourth visit to Russia. Score to film Lieutenant Kizhe.
International success for Lt. Kizhe Suite. Regular journeys
between Moscow and family at home in Paris.
Romeo and Juliet ballet and 2nd violin concerto composed.
Beginning of official crackdown on Shostakovich and other Soviet composers.
Closes Paris apartment and moves with family to Moscow. Peter and
the Wolf very successful.
American tour. Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution
found unsuitable for performance by Russian authorities.
Last American Tour, with Lina. W.W.II closes off European travel. Alexander
Nevsky, 1st cello concerto premiered in Moscow. Romeo and Juliet
premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia.
Summer in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus. Meets Mira. Arrest of Meyerhold.
Successful Romeo and Juliet premiere in Leningrad. Shostakovich
praises 6th piano sonata. Semyon Kotko unsuccessful.
Richter plays Russian premiere of 5th Piano Concerto to great success.
P. abandons family to live with Mira. Hitler attacks Russia. P. and
Mira leave war-threatened Moscow for the Caucasus.
2nd string quartet. Begins composition of War and Peace. Moves
to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, to begin work on Ivan the Terrible with
Eisenstein. Scores three war propaganda films.
Return to Moscow. Richter premiers 7th piano sonata, which receives
a 2nd place Stalin prize. P.ís music becomes very popular throughout
the world. Back to Alma-Ata, then to Molotov (now Perm). Final return
Oistrakh and Oborin premier violin version of flute sonata Op 94. Gilels
premieres 8th piano sonata. Concert performance with pianos of War
and Peace. Ivan the Terrible Part I premiered and wins Stalin
Prize 1st class for both Eisenstein and P.
Very successful premiere of 5th symphony and Cinderella ballet.
Health collapses, enters hospital with severe hypertension; moved to
sanatorium in Barkhiva. Well enough to attend well received premiere
of War and Peace excerpts with orchestra, in June. On the cover
of Time magazine USA.
Jubilant 55th birthday celebrations in Russia. Ivan the Terrible
Part II completed, officially denounced; Eisenstein forced to apologise.
War and Peace Part I receives very successful first staged performance.
Successful premieres for Betrothal in a Monastery and 1st violin
sonata. Health worsens.
Premiere of Part II of War and Peace cancelled by censors. Premiere
of 6th symphony in Leningrad; at first successful, but later officially
Marries Mira. Most severe ideological attack on Soviet composers. P.
forced to confess and apologize. First wife Lina arrested and sentenced
to prison. Eisenstein dies.
Successful premiere by Rostropovich and Richter of cello sonata. Health
Richter premieres 9th piano sonata. On Guard for Peace wins
Stalin Prize second class.
Awarded public pension. Composes Sinfonie-Concertante for Cello
and Orchestra. Last public appearance at successful premiere of
7th symphony, October 11.
Dies at home in Moscow, March 5.
© MusicWeb March 2003