SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953) – Part 1. The Early Years to 1918
This September Matthew Taylor commences his series of lectures on the works of Prokofiev. This note does not attempt to describe the music which Matthew will illustrate and analyze. It is an attempt to give a little biographical background and it is by no means comprehensive. So E & O E.
To all intents and purposes Sergei Prokofiev was Russian. In point of fact he was born and reared at Sontsovka in the Ukraine. Now to refer to a Ukrainian as Russian is about as accurate as referring to Alex Ferguson as an English football manager. However, in the case of Prokofiev his parents were Russian and had only set up home some ten years earlier in Sontsovka where his father had been appointed as an agricultural engineer and estate manager. Prokofiev was not therefore an indigenous Ukrainian in the same way that Josef Stalin was an indigenous Georgian. Prokofiev would have seen himself as an out and out Russian and it was to Russia for which he had pined and to where he returned in 1936.
His mother, Maria Grigoryevna Prokofieva, was musical and played Beethoven, Chopin and some easier Liszt. However, her great passion was for Tchaikovsky and, even more so, for Anton Rubinstein. Prokofiev was no prodigy à la Mozart so much as a remarkably precocious child whose interest in music was matched by his studies of sciences, maths and especially chess in which he was self taught and played all his life. His mother encouraged his developing interest and he started to learn the piano with her at the age of 5 at which age he wrote his first composition, an Indian Gallop. At the age of 8 he was first taken to St Petersburg and then to Moscow to visit relatives where he had his first operatic encounters with Gounod’s Faust and Borodin’s Prince Igor. The result was his writing his first opera, “the Giant” at the age of 9 and presenting it in a home production in 1901.
Visits to St Petersburg and Moscow became annual events and it had become clear by the time he was ten that Prokofiev was destined for a musical career with the piano at the forefront. Through the agency of a friend at St Petersburg conservatory it was arranged that Rheinhold Glière, best known to-day for his Red Poppy Suite, would come to Sontsovka to teach Prokofiev which he did over two summers. The productive outcome was the opera, a symphony and several small piano pieces which Sergei called his puppies.
By 1904, at the age of 13, Sergei was taken to St Petersburg Conservatory. Its principal was Alexander Glazunov (best known for his ballet, The Seasons, and for finishing the orchestration of Prince Igor). It was he who suggested that Prokofiev take the entrance examination. Prokofiev describes it in his biography as:
“The entrance examination was quite sensational. The examinee before me was a man with a beard who had nothing to show the examiners but a single romance without accompaniment. Then I came in, bending under the weight of two huge folders containing four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and a good many pianoforte pieces. ‘Here is a pupil after my own heart!’ observed Rimsky-Korsakov, who headed the examining board.”
Prokofiev not only gained his entrance but at the age of 13 was the youngest to do so. (My research shows that Taneyev gained entry to Moscow Conservatory aged 9). As far as Maria Grigoryevna was concerned Sergei was old enough to enter the conservatory but she herself would move to St Petersburg to take care of her son notwithstanding the protests and Chekovian threats of suicide by her husband.
The musical scene in Russia during the first decade of the twentieth century was one of flux. It had changed from the Russia of the Mighty Handful, those nationalists who had followed in Glinka’s footsteps and who either had depicted historical Russia or pseudo-orientalism. In total contrast to them had been the Russian Germanics led by the Rubinstein brothers, Nicolai and Anton, whose music was descended down the line of Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Somewhere in between was Tchaikovsky whose leanings were towards the orthodox school but his feet were never quite entrenched in either camp. Now in the twentieth century there was a distinct conservative reaction. Glazunov’s earlier promise as a kind of musical executor to Borodin had yielded to a dull conservatism in comparison with which Brahms’ music, for instance, sounds positively extravagant. Equally reactionary was Taneyev, former pupil of Tchaikovsky, who had immersed himself into counterpoint, Bach and Palestrina in particular. I have one disc of Tanyev’s music in my collection which I reckon should have received a Gramophone Award for uninspirational boredom. In contrast were the modernists exemplified by the emergence of Scriabin who was a kind of Russo-Richard Strauss but more extreme. He seemed to regard himself as a musical Messiah and met his Calvary in 1915. Also prominent in the continuing romantic school were Rachmaninoff and Medtner both of whom were to
emigrate after 1917.
Sergei was to spend the next ten years in study, mostly rebellious. He took up his place with students who were all much older than him but this did not appear to bother him. The names of teachers he had would find their way into most concert programmes, Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Tcherepnin and Taneyev. Sergei was not overawed by their reputation. He was irritated by Rimsky’s lectures and did not have the same fondness for him as did Stravinsky. As to Liadov who lectured on harmony, Sergei compiled a spreadsheet list of all the harmonic errors Liadov would pick out – 19 of them according to Sergei who kept a record of the mistakes made by all his fellow students. Little wonder they resented the presence of this adolescent know-all.
The next year, 1905, saw the outbreak of an uprising. It could be said to have been a rehearsal for 1917. There was mutiny in the navy, famously recalled in Eisentstein’s film “the Battleship Potemkin”. In the country there was a call for the setting up of the Duma. The unrest was felt at the conservatory at St Petersburg where the students went on strike and several tutors were suspended. Rimsky-Korsakov was dismissed for his support but was later re-instated. Prokofiev may have felt the thrill but he was neither then nor later in life a political person. For him the cancellation of lectures was a nuisance.
When he was 16 Sergei met Myaskovsky who was ten years his senior and had been a professional soldier and was now pursuing his musical studies. The two formed a bond which lasted till Myakovsky’s death in 1949 and they continued to correspond and send each other their scores even during the period of Prokofiev’s residence in America. At the conservatory they would call any work they disparaged as “Rubinstein”, a coded euphemism for merde. So much for Prokofiev’s esteem for his mother’s favourite composer! Mind you, the expression was in wider circulation as Stravinsky recalls Rimsky Korsakov commenting on Scriabin as “c’est du Rubinstein”. Here allow me to record a personal word of protest. My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was also Rubinstein and I recall wedding invitations from relatives of that name whom I did not know. Nevertheless whilst family connection may cause me to join issue, in respect of Scriabin I entirely agree with Rimsky’s sentiments. Scriabin was to start with an inspiring influence on Prokofiev and Miaskovskybut this was to wane. Max Reger, a particular favourite of Matthew Taylor, was also the flavour of the day .
At the same time Sergei was beginning to be known for his pianistic prowess. In 1908 he was attending an informal group “Evenings of Contemporary Music” playing his own music as well as that of certain emerging contemporaries. Anybody who was anybody, composer, performer or critic was to be seen there and Prokofiev’s reputation was spreading amongst the cognoscenti although his participation gave concern to his professors. In 1909 his composing and theory course came to an end with the following comment by Glazunov:
“Technical preparation exceedingly brilliant. Interpretation unique, original, but not always in the best artistic taste.”
Sergei remained enrolled at the Conservatory studying piano under Anna Esipova, renowned international pianist, and conducting under the composer, Nicolai Tcherepnin from 1909 to 1914. In 1912 he published his first piano concerto soon to be followed by his second which received even more scathing reviews than did the first. Prokofiev seemed to thrive on criticism, unlike Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov who would wilt under the onslaught. For Prokofiev, the greater the criticism, the more provocative would be the next response.
The first concerto is in fact quite short, less than 20 minutes but powerful and muscular. It is in three movements or possibly it could be called one movement in three parts as there are no breaks and it ends full circle with the opening theme. It got a drubbing from the American critics later in the 1920’s. The second piano concerto is even more powerful but less attractive. It was rewritten in 1923, because Prokofiev had left the score behind when he went to America. Apparently the occupants of his flat then found the score and burnt it to cook an omelette. (They sound as if they might have been out of La Bohème). Prokofiev was to rewrite a number of his published compositions for various reasons. Apart from leaving his music behind and the obvious wish on occasion to make improvements it would often be with the intention of presenting the music in a different ambiance to that for which it was originally conceived. The result is not the ditching of an inferior work but the creation of an alternative and adding the suffix “bis” to the original opus number. He also wrote probably more orchestral suites compiled from his operas and ballets than any of his contemporaries to make sure that audiences who had not heard the stage work would still get to know the music. So, even though a production of the stage work might not get mounted, few of us will not have heard the March and Scherzo from the Love of Three Oranges. Added to this was the difficulty Prokofiev could create for himself by the amount of memorable themes he was able to pour out. Hence, the reason for three different suites for Romeo and Juliet alone.
By 1913, the conservatory years were coming to their end after ten years but there remained one further glittering opportunity for Sergei to tackle, the Anton Rubinstein Prize, awarded to the best piano student. Sergei decided to enter but instead of choosing a well known concerto he decided to play his own first piano concerto. What chutzpah but there was nothing in the rules to prevent this and Sergei had to arrange prints of the score for the judges who would not be familiar with the work. Actually, it was a clever entrapment. The judges would have known their Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein, Chopin etc well enough to have picked holes in the player’s technique and to have gone to town in criticising the interpretation. Here they did not know the work, did not like the work but their critical faculties would have been too blunted to be able to make any independent assessment of their own. However they were clearly bowled over by Prokofiev’s pianistic bravura. So, not only did he win a piano competition to enhance his virtuoso reputation, much to the chagrin of Glazunov whose duty it was to announce the judges’ decision, but also it added to what Sergei had set his sights upon, a big splash for his reputation as a composer.
With this triumph behind him Prokofiev set out in June 1914 for bigger and better things. Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes had come to London to perform the ballets which had stunned Paris and it was against this background that Sergei Prokofiev, wanting part of the action, was to come to London to seek out Diaghilev. He brought with him the second piano concerto which he played to Diaghilev who was impressed sufficiently to consider using it as a ballet although he decided against it. Instead, Diaghilev came up with the idea of setting the tale of Ala and Lolli to music for a ballet and was happy to commission the work. It was to be based on the primitive rites of the warlike Scythians who between 900 and 700 BC occupied what is now Anatolia in Turkey. Coming a year after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring the similarities could not have been co-incidental. Prokofiev was clearly aiming to outdo Stravinsky.
The First World War threatened. The lamps were going down all over Europe and Prokofiev made his way home to St Petersburg just before the outbreak of hostilities between Tsarist Russia with Germany. Sergei’s father had died in 1910 and Prokofiev was exempted military service, being the only son of a widow, In 1915 he travelled to Milan to see Diaghilev and to play to him part of the draft score of Ala and Lolli but Diaghilev then changed his mind and rejected it. Ever resourceful, Prokofiev was not going to waste a year’s effort and immediately decided to rewrite it as an orchestral suite to be called “The Scythian Suite”. There has been some debate as to just why Diaghilev turned it down. Musically Ala and Lolly was not as dissonant as The Rite of Spring. It seems possible that Diaghilev did not want a repeat of The Rite of Spring debacle. It is certain that he had at least some confidence in Prokofiev’s composing ability because as fast as he rejected Ala and Lolly, he commissioned Prokofiev to write another ballet, “Chout”, also known as “The Tale of the Buffoon”. Even then Diaghilev put that one on the back burner which may have been because there was no longer the money to mount the lavish productions of the pre-war years. Besides fashions were fast changing and Diaghilev was a man who always needed to be one step ahead, vogue-wise.
The period to 1917 produced a number of works. The Scythian Suite was awaited with keen anticipation by members of the Evening Contemporary Music Group. It was given its first performance in St Petersburg in January 1916 and received by some but not all with acclaim. Prokofiev appeared to will a repeat of the debacle previously accorded to the Rite of Spring in Paris. “Do you know that the price of rotten eggs and apples has gone up in St. Petersburg? That’s what they’ll throw at me!” Its repute was only to be helped by Glazunov, ever the masochist, walking out.
There then followed work on a new opera, The Gambler, based on the short novel by Dostoevsky. It was cancelled and never to be performed for many years. Firstly it was decried by the singers at the Maryinsky and the events of 1917 put paid to any plans for production.
Never put off, Prokofiev started early work without commission on a new opera, the Love of Three Oranges, based on an eighteenth century Italian play by Carlo Gozzi. It would not be finished until later on after he had left for America.
During this period he was writing extensively also for the solo piano and particularly noteworthy are the Visions Fugitives and the third and fourth piano sonatas. He also made a start on his third piano concerto which would turn out to be the most popular of the five he wrote.
The first revolution of 1917 in March leading to the Kerensky government was particularly disruptive in St Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd. It was there that Prokofiev completed his first symphony, the Classical. It is a fair assumption to say that most people would have first encountered Prokofiev with “Peter and the Wolf”. It is a fairly safe bet to say that the second most popularly known work of his is the Classical Symphony. It has the feel of being a first work but it certainly was not and it comes as a shock that this composition came after the Scythian Suite. Prokofiev wrote “Until this time I had always composed at the piano, but I noticed that thematic material composed without the piano was often better.” Another comment has been made that Prokofiev could only keep in key when writing at the piano and that this was an attempt not to stray out of key. In this regard it must be adjudged a failure, one which has given rise to a spectacular success. There are a number of articles referring to this work as neo-classical. I question that label. Neo-classicism was to dress up old composers in new clothes (à la Stravinsky in Pulcinella) or to write modern music inspired by old forms like the concerti grossi of Martinu in the 1930’s and which do not invoke the past but sound like the 1930’s. The Classical Symphony does not contain quotes by Haydn or by anybody else; it is pastiche but more than that it evokes the spirit of an earlier age rather than its form. In this it is more like the Percy Grainger of Handel in the Strand…. without the twee. For Prokoviev this was a one off visit to the past. He himself was later to describe Stravinsky’s neo-classical music as “Bach with wrong notes.” Stravinsky was kinder in describing Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his day… after himself. The Classical Symphony was followed by the first Violin Concerto, a virtuoso romantic work which deserves to be a concert hall pot boiler.
By September Poland had seized the Ukraine and it was hotting up in Petrograd with threats of German invasion. Prokofiev went to visit his mother in the Caucasus. The next month, the Bolshevik revolution took place. The Kerensky government fell and the Lenin government took power. Prokofiev was cut off in territory held by the Whites until the Reds entered. He now felt the need to travel further afield and in particular to make his mark in the USA. Under the new government he needed to travel to Moscow to obtain a permit. Civil war was taking place in Russia and there was a risk of trains being shelled. Prokofiev was not deterred and made his way. He had no plans for exactly how long he would be away but he envisaged it as months when he requested his exit visa. At this time there was no concept of Socialist realism, no Zdahnov decree, no directive on how Marxism should present the arts save that in a Marxist/Leninist society they would find their own level. However, a composer would now need government permission to publish any work and, with the likes of Glazunov continuing to head the Conservatory, Prokofiev must have seen the red light and looked for the green one. The officials felt that he ought to stay but saw his music as a suitable vehicle to promote the emerging Soviet Union and granted his exit permit. He was not seeking to emigrate nor fleeing but looking for pastures new to promote himself. As David Gutman has written, Prokofiev would not have had Lenin in mind as his guru but Stravinsky. It was not to be a case either of “Go west young man”. The First World War was still raging in central Europe and the Western Front and it was impassable. It became instead a case of “Go east young man.”