Prokofiev (2)




Go East young man. Getting to America started with Prokofiev taking the Trans Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in May 1918. The slow journey through civil war torn Russia took 18 days including being stopped by Czech troops who were aiding the Whites. Shades of Pasternak – a pity Dr Zhivago had not yet been written because it would have made a great opera. During the journey Sergei was in fact studying Babylonian art.   From Vladivostok he sailed to Japan for a brief stay. Western Music was little known there but an article had figured on Prokofiev to enable him to be invited to give some recitals in Tokyo and Yokohama to curious, albeit not greatly appreciative, audiences. Then onward by ship arriving in San Francisco in August. He was broke, kept in police custody for three days as a maximalist, a Bolshevik by another name. With $300 he had borrowed from a passenger he had met on board he was able to travel to New York, where he arrived in September. He was soon asked to give a recital. Whilst the critics railed against his savage music and steely, mechanistic playing, the public accorded him a better reception. His expectation soon turned to disappointment and the novelty of being a product of the emerging Bolshevik state cast a shadow on his new music. He was billed as the “Bolshevik Pianist” in promotional posters, and his playing was often described as “barbaric.” The negative reviews took their toll on Prokofiev. He quickly grew bitter about America; bitter of managers who arranged long tours for artists playing the same old hackneyed programme fifty times over; bitter of the lack of recognition to composers as opposed to the celebrity accorded to performers.

In December of 1918, he fared better with successful performances of his First Piano Concerto and Scythian Suite at Chicago. After these concerts, Cleofonte Campanini, manager of the Chicago Opera, asked if he could stage one of his operas. His only completed opera so far was “The Gambler” but he had left the score in Russia. Instead he offered to complete his unfinished opera, The Love of Three Oranges. Campanini, appreciating its Italian sources, enthusiastically accepted and a contract was signed for the following autumn. It was in fact finished and ready within three months.


Soon after, Sergei met Carolina Codina, an operatic soprano, known by her stage name, Lina Llubera. She had been born in Spain; her father was Spanish; her mother was of Polish and Alsatian descent. She and Prokofiev became an item, eventually marrying in Bavaria in 1923.


One success in 1919 came from a chance request from Zimro, an ensemble of Jewish musicians, whose members had known Prokofiev in the Conservatory days. Their concerts were promoted to raise funds towards the building of a university at Jerusalem in the hope of attracting Jewish audiences, Added to a conventional string quartet were a piano and clarinet. They gave Prokofiev a collection of Jewish folk music to write a piece for their sextet. At first he was hesitant as he preferred to work from his original ideas but his interest perked up and he took all of a day and a half to compose the Overture on Hebrew Themes. Its main theme has a klezmer flavour, semitic sounding but never schmaltzy. The secondary theme has a peaceful charm, quite the other side of the coin to the modernist, motoric themes for which Prokofiev was now largely known.   In 1934 he was to orchestrate it but the later version does not have the seductive attraction of the original sextet.

Despite some successes, his performances in New York were now regularly reviled in the press, this from “Musical America in 1918: “Nor in the Classical Symphony, which the composer conducted, was there any cessation from the orgy of discordant sounds.”   Now I ask you. Who in their right mind would refer to the Classical Symphony of all his works as an orgy of discordant sounds? Probably only a critic who was sitting throughout in the bar anyway. No wonder these were difficult times for Prokofiev and that he went down with diphtheria and scarlet fever.

Campanini died suddenly in December 1919 with the Love of Three Oranges in rehearsal. The management at Chicago Opera, uncertain of themselves, decided to postpone until the following year but without paying Prokofiev his commission. Concert appearances were drying up and Prokofiev, in the spring of 1920, finding himself out of work, embarked for France to seek out Diaghilev.

What had gone wrong? It was not only the money. It was the hostility, particularly in New York. He had gone there as the composer and they were wanting the pianist.   He would have been sickened by the poster proclaiming “Stravinsky – composer: Prokofiev – pianist”.   Managements were not interested in concerts devoted to any one composer, let alone a contemporary one and Prokofiev was not prepared, except to promote himself as a composer, to do the rounds of concert halls playing the piano, as was Rachmaninov. America was alive with established novelists, playwrights, poets, artists and musical performers but it had yet to develop itself as a country fit for composers. Indigenous talent, such as Gershwin and Copland was yet to emerge, Charles Ives excepted and unknown. The injection of European blood to add to this would be ten or more years away. It was all too early or as Prokofiev wrote “I had come here too soon; the child was not old enough to appreciate new music.”

Upon arriving in Paris, Prokofiev re-established relations with Diaghilev. There was outstanding business as it will be recalled that Diaghilev had commissioned Chout (The Buffoon) back in 1915. Now he asked Prokofiev to complete this ballet for the Ballets Russes. Prokofiev rented a house in Mantes, north west of Paris, and began revising the score for Chout. There his mother, who was in poor health, was able to join him in Paris as did Lina. The first performance of Chout took place in Paris in May 1921, followed in June in London. On the whole the public were impressed. Not so the critics who were particularly harsh in London. Generally this was more to do with the bizarre storyline than Prokofiev’s music. It starts with one of eight magicians pretending to kill his wife and bringing her back to life with a whip which he claims to be magical. The other seven want to have a go and each borrows the whip, kills his wife only to find its magical qualities don’t work! Chout was to have a short life on the stage but its music and the cubist decor won amongst new fans Henri Matisse, who went on to sketch a portrait of Prokofiev. Prokofiev also met Pablo Picasso and Maurice Ravel and was now taking his place alongside the leading artists of the day.

Back in France Prokofiev turned his attention back to his third piano concerto. He had started work on it in 1917 but could not get his ideas to gel.   Now he was able to retrieve some of his jettisoned ideas from his more recent compositions and somehow, blending them together, completed his third piano concerto which sounds all of one piece. In no way does it belie the difficulties he had had and is undoubtedly his most popular concerto.

In the autumn of 1921 he made his third American tour where at long last the first performance of the Love of Three Oranges took place in Chicago as well as the third piano concerto which he himself performed. It is ironic that when The Love of Three Oranges finally did premiere in December 1920, it was an immediate hit in Chicago. Not so in New York a few months later where it provoked hostility. Prokofiev was bewildered by the opposite reactions: “The American season, which had begun so brilliantly, completely fizzled out.” Again the idiosyncratic American response to his music prompted an early return to Europe in whose opera houses The Love of Three Oranges was staged with great success and it remains his most successful opera.

On his return Prokofiev settled into a rented home in the town of Ettal in the Bavarian Alps. Here he would spend most of 1922-23 where he was to care for his ailing mother who was going blind. Lina at this time was studying opera in Milan which was comparatively nearby. They married in September of 1923. During this time he devoted most of his energies to a new opera, the Fiery Angel. This was a purely Prokofiev-inspired endeavour which languished, never to be performed while the composer was alive.

During this Ettal period, Sergei received an invitation to return to Russia to perform with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Moreover, his friends back in the Soviet Union, particularly Miaskovsky, had remained in touch during his American and European travels. They urged Prokofiev to return, letting him know that his music was being performed in Soviet concert halls.   His recent marriage and continued devotion to the care of his mother in addition to the harsh economic conditions in the Soviet Union probably weighed heavily in Prokofiev’s decision to turn down this invite. He chose to return to France but he kept his options open for a possible return to his homeland.

And so he returned with Lina and his mother to Paris in the autumn of 1923, in time for the birth of their first son, Sviatoslav, the following February. His mother, Maria Prokofieva who had set him on his musical road, died in December. The events of 1924 had proved distracting to his composing and the only significant work to emerge in 1924 was the symphonic suite he drew from the Love of Three Oranges. Diaghileff also wanted to commission a ballet adaptation of the Love of Three Oranges but Prokofiev did not notgo alongwith it and the two fell out over this for a while

Now a new champion was to emerge in the shape of the conductor, Sergei Koussevitsky. He was Russian, a double bassist, whose second wife, Natalie was the heiress to a wealthy tea merchant. Her money enabled Koussevitsky to study conducting under Nikisch in Berlin and eventually he established the Concerts Koussevitsky in Paris between 1920 and 1929.  He was also appointed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1925 and turned it into the greatest American Orchestra as well as founding the Tanglewood Festival.   For the orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary in 1930 Koussevitsky commissioned several European composers to produce new works. These included, Albert Roussel, Bohuslav Martinu, Igor Stravinsky (The Symphony of Psalms) and Sergei Prokofiev (the fourth symphony). For me his greatest commission was that given in 1942 to Benjamin Britten for the opera “Peter Grimes”.


Back in 1923 it was Koussevitzky who had previously commissioned Prokofiev to write his second symphony and whilst he was working on it Koussevitzky premiered in Paris works completed in that prolific year of 1917, but which had remained unperformed including the Cantata, “Seven, They are Seven”, and the First Violin Concerto. The first performance of the concerto in 1923 turned out to be disappointing for the wrong reasons. Expecting new, daring works by Prokofiev, the audience found the concerto too conventional and lyrical to begin with. Gradually this concerto was to gain favour; the Second Symphony enjoyed no such reprieve. Prokofiev aimed to make the symphony “as hard as iron and steel”. The first performance turned out a flop. Even Prokofiev himself, always frank and to the point, found it lacking: “Neither I nor the audience understood anything in it.” One gets the feeling that Prokofiev was somewhat like the character, Doc Martin , played by Martin Clunes, and said what he had to say, as it was. One person who did claim to like the symphony was Françis Poulenc but he was a bridge playing partner of Sergei and had to look him in the eye. He was probably being polite rather than perverse.

Diaghilev also showed enthusiasm and, wanting to make amends, proposed a new ballet, Le Pas d’Acier (The Steel Step). It was he who came up with the idea that the action be set in the Soviet Union. The story involved a romance between a sailor and a young girl factory worker and includes commissars, represented by two bassoons, and with a background of factory machines and sprocket wheels. Not that Diaghilev admired much about the Soviet Union. After the revolution of 1917, he had stayed abroad. The Soviet regime, having failed to lure him back, condemned him in perpetuity as an especially insidious example of bourgeois decadence. Soviet art historians wrote him out of the picture for more than 60 years. The title of the work is curious. I wonder if it had any reference to Stalin whose original name was Iosif Dzhugashvili but whose adopted name meant Man of Steel! Just a thought. Following a further American concert tour with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, Prokofiev and Lina returned to Paris where he completed writing Le Pas d’Acier. The first performances in Paris and London in 1927 were both wildly successful with the public.

Two important events were to take place in 1927 and 1928. Following negotiations with the Soviet authorities on the terms of a concert tour Prokofiev’s first return visit to his homeland took place in January 1927. Everywhere he played, eager crowds packed the concert halls. This return tour was a resounding success. He was celebrated as a Russian hero whose revolutionary music had conquered the West. These accolades were perhaps out of proportion to his real stature in Western music. In December 1928 Prokofiev’s second son Oleg was born in Paris. Matthew has paid homage to him and you will see on the wall opposite as you arrive at the first floor landing Oleg’s sculpted portrait of his father. Oleg lived amongst us in Blackheath from 1970 to his death in 1998 and supported the Halls when they were being restored.

The failure of his Second Symphony weighed heavily with Prokofiev when he returned to Paris. Within the next two years the third and fourth symphonies were to appear and curiously they came into being in almost identical circumstances. Koussevitzky had recently conducted orchestral performances of some excerpts from The Fiery Angel. Prokofiev then set about creating a symphonic suite based on the work which led in turn to thoughts on developing the material into a third symphony. This was given its first performance in May 1929 in Paris. The critics, and Prokofiev for that matter, were much happier with the result.


Meantime, before the completion of the third symphony Diaghilev commissioned Prokofiev to create another ballet. This was to be the based on the New Testament tale of the Prodigal Son which was completed fairly quickly. Then in biblical style there came drama. The designer, Georges Rouault, known for his inspirational Christian paintings, did not deliver the sketches for the sets as promised and Diaghilev resorted to Watergate methods to break into his apartment and take them. Then there followed comedy with the leading dancer, Serge Lifar, refusing to turn up at the theatre on the opening night because he disliked his role. So he decided to take to his bed until pangs of guilt at abandoning Diaghilev prompted him to reconsider and turn up late. Finally the good Lord took Diaghilev himself who died two months later in Venice. He was buried at St Michele where over 40 years later he was joined by his old companion in revolution, Igor Stravinsky, each being buried within hailing distance of each other. The loss was an important factor that must have weighed in Prokofiev’s eventual decision to return to the Soviet Union.

It will be recalled that Koussevitsky had commissioned a fourth symphony from Prokofiev for the fiftieth anniversary of his Boston Orchestra. For his part Prokofiev with all the drama surrounding The Prodigal Son, hadn’t had much opportunity to get down to the task. Instead, just as Prokofiev had utilised the Fiery Angel as the genesis for his third symphony, so borrowings from the Prodigal son were made for the new fourth symphony. He was able to justify this in his memoirs thus “ Merely, in the symphony I had the possibility to develop symphonically what a ballet form did not enable me to do. A precedent may be recalled with Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, and his Symphony No. 3. (the Eroica)”.

Koussevitzky conducted the first performance in November1930. The public reception was lukewarm with accusations of too much borrowing from The Prodigal Son. This sounds like the result of know it all critics who must have been at work as it is hardly likely that they or the public would have been familiar with the Prodigal Son. Prokofiev did revisit the work in 1947 when he made substantial revisions.   My own recording is the original version and although it does not set the world on fire – it is restrained by Prokofiev’s standards – it is worth getting to know.

This visit to the United States in 1930 also resulted in a commission from the Library of Congress, the string quartet No 1. Prokofiev states that he made a study of Beethoven quartets and methods and that this quartet was influenced accordingly. The success of the quartet may well have been down to Prokofiev being more free to write as he wished without having to prove yet again his modernist credentials. He wrote for its finale a profound slow movement, an andante, which he re-scored separately for string orchestra.

His last tour in the USA took place in 1932.   However compositionally he seems to have lost direction and there followed a number of poorly received works. First a ballet commissioned by the Paris Opera, “On the Dneiper” renamed “Sur le Borysthène” which closed shortly after it opened. This was followed by the Fourth Piano Concerto for left hand, commissioned in 1931 by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in World War I. It was one in a number of piano works for left hand Wittgenstein had commissioned from major composers including Strauss, Korngold, Hindemith, Britten and most famously, Ravel. Wittgenstein was bitter and a pain in the posterior into the bargain. At his insistence he owned the rights in all these works. He disliked them and was in a position to refuse any performance in his lifetime. When Prokofiev, who was no exception, sent him the completed score, Wittgenstein promptly returned it with a note attached: “I thank you for your concerto, but I do not understand a single note and I shall not play it.”

Soon Prokofiev was at work on a fifth piano concerto. He had not intended the concerto to be difficult but in the end it turned out to be so, as indeed was the case with a good many other compositions of this period. What was the explanation? “In my desire for simplicity I was hampered by the fear of repeating old formulas, of reverting to ‘old simplicity’, which is something all modern composers seek to avoid.” Of the fifth he wrote, “I had enough melodies to make three concertos.” He compacted these numerous ideas into a five movement concerto that lasts only twenty odd minutes. He himself gave the first performance in October 1932 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler.  There are interesting themes in both the concertos. The fifth seems to owe something to Les Six but it remains obviously Prokofiev. What each of the two seem me to lack is a sense of connection within each work between movements. I do not know if Matthew feels the same but as he wont to say, “The penny has yet to drop”.

Back in 1929 Prokofiev had made a second return to the Soviet Union which had been marked with controversy, the Bolshoi having refused to stage Le Pas d’Acier after pressure from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). Now in 1932 Prokofiev embarked on his third concert tour. This tour was a turning point. The RAPM had dissolved and criticism of “anti-Soviet” ideas had died down. Sergei had now entered his forties. Perhaps his middle age moment had come. He was greeted by the public as their hero, with adoration, and he was recognized as one of Russia’s greatest living composers. If the third tour in 1932 began further to convince Prokofiev that he should return for good, the Soviet government employed some good old-fashioned capitalist further incentives to persuade him to stay — they promised him an apartment in Moscow and a new car.

Prokofiev did not however return immediately. He took another four years contemplating his chess board of options during which time he continued living in Paris and composing there the commissions now coming his way from the Soviet Union .   In 1936 he suddenly shocked the world by packing his bags for one last time and returning to Russia. My next note will look more closely at the reasons. Meantime, this is what Prokofiev wrote:

“Here is how I feel about it. I care nothing for politics. I’m a composer first and last. Any government that lets me write my music in peace, publishes everything I compose before the ink is dry, and performs every note that comes from my pen is all right with me. In Europe, we all have to fish for performances, cajole conductors and theatre directors; in Russia, they come to me. I can hardly keep up with the demand”