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8.553429 - PROKOFIEV: Ten Small Pieces / Sarcasms / Visions Fugitives
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Sergey Prokofiev was a precocious as, but much more rebellious than, Mozart. His musical gifts were evident during his early childhood. At the age of five, Prokofiev wrote his first piano piece. By the age of eleven, he had written a number of compositions, including two operas. Reinhold Glière became his composition teacher in 1902, while Alexander Winkler was his first piano teacher. On the recommendation of Alexander Glazunov, he was admitted into the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1904, where he was taught harmony and counterpoint by Anatoly Liadov, composition and orchestration by Nikolay, Rimsky-Korsakov, conducting by Nikolay Tcherepnin, and advanced piano by Anna Esipova. At the conservatory, he met and forged a lifelong friendship with fellow student Nikolay Myaskovsky. In spite of such distinguished teaching, Prokofiev felt stifled by the pedantic lessons, by the fussy pedagogy, by the statistic strictures of tradition. He wanted to write exuberant music filled with marches, storms, battles, chases, and blood-curdling scenes. Instead, he found his ambitions severely restricted.
Prokofiev’s musical insolence earned him derogatory evaluations, such as “very talented, but immature”, and some of his compositions were criticized as “coarse cacophony from which music cannot be extracted”. In fact, after the early and temporary influence of Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Max Reger, he developed a unique style of his own. This style evolved into a peculiar blend of the ancient and the new, combining antique modes with modern figurations. Nicolas Nabokov, the composer, cultural diplomat, and cousin of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, described the style as Prokofiev’s “little game”: “His easily discernible melodic construction is a basic rhythmic figure surrounded by a melodic pattern so obvious that it borders on trivial, except that an apparently disconnected and suddenly arbitrary melodic line is suddenly forced upon the harmonic frame, creating the feeling that the conventional melody has been refreshed by the “mishandling” of the harmony, Prokofiev’s compositions have a thematic structure full of abrupt and unexpected leaps, harmonic surprises, and jarringly medieval modalities. Prokofiev used these devices to imbue his compositions with satire, whimsy, and sarcasm.”
During the time when Prokofiev lived in the United States of America and France, after leaving Russia in 1918, he was attacked by Western critics as a composer of clangour that represented the Communist Party line. After his return in 1935 to his native land, by then the U.S.S.R., he was chastised by the Communist Party Central Committee for writing music that was too “dissonant” (unharmonious) to their ears. Although, unlike Dmitry Shostakovich, he did not give way to the Party hacks’ demands, his Spanish-born wife, Carolina Codina, was imprisoned for nine years, from 1948 to 1957, in a labour camp; and Myra Mendelson, the niece of Lazar Kaganovich, the Chief of the OGPU, predecessor of the KGB, attached herself to Prokofiev as his “live-in” censor and spy.
The last sad irony in this tragic repression was that Prokofiev, trying to comply with the Soviet Ideal of “socialist realism”, composed a 1937 Cantata in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik take-over of Russia. Nevertheless, Stalin was not pleased with the Cantata’s modernity, despite the fact that the composition contained an Ode to Stalin. The Cantata had to wait nearly three decades to be performed in the Soviet Union; even then, the Ode was deleted from the performance, and both Prokofiev and Stalin died on the very same day, 5th March 1953, about a decade and a half before the first performance.
Prokofiev’s biography is a fascinating drama about one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and pianists, caught in the web of totalitarian treachery. Besides his own Autobiography, the best single treatise is Victor Seroff’s Sergey Prokofiev: A Soviet Tragedy, dealing with these matters.
The forty pieces included in this volume of Prokofiev’s solo piano music were written between 1906 and 1917. They are representative of Prokofiev’s early period, in which his harsh reactions to impressionism are rather obvious. The roots of his eventual neoclassical style are there also, though not as easily detectable. Prokofiev’s personality does come through unambiguously, however: the radical, droll, impudent strokes are everywhere.
Toccatas are improvisational pieces designed to show off the performer’s ability. The form, famously used by Johann Sebastian Bach, found favour with later composers, from Schumann and Liszt to Ravel, Poulenc and Khachaturian. Prokofiev’s Toccata, Op. 11, is an incredibly ferocious piece, witheringly agitated, and extraordinarily challenging technically. As a concert example of perpetual motion, it ranks in difficulty and dazzle along with Schumann’s Toccata, Op. 7, but definitely surpasses that in ruthless, savage imagery, as it evokes Giger mindscapes: an intense nightmare, a close encounter with the dreaded inevitability of darkness, an alien, monstrous terror.
Prokofiev composed the Ten Small Pieces, Op. 12, over a period of nearly eight years. He often played several of them in his piano recitals. These ten are text-book examples of Prokofiev’s neoclassic prowess. The sad March mocks solemnity with damp, resigned pomp; its unenthusiastic bounces and reluctant gait betray the jauntiness of the occasion. Listening to the Gavotte, one finds oneself in a musty but piquant environment, centuries ago, perhaps in an attic with a creaky music-box or at a ball in a run-down palace. The Rigaudon and the Mazurka are dances in motion but caricatures in spirit. The Caprice and Légende are both tenebrous and sardonic. The “harp” Prélude is a fantastic cascade of notes, a harbinger of a musical flavour that would later be thoroughly exploited by Francis Poulenc, who referred to Prokofiev as the “Russian Liszt”. The last three pieces, the Allemande, the Scherzo Humoristique, and the Scherzo, are fast, pulsating, bombastic, and all ten in the set show Prokofiev’s ability to write music that is, irrespective of its canonical trappings, persuasively insistent and aggressive.
The five Sarcasms, Op. 17, are throbbing, unleashed rages, contemptuous quips, jeers, anarchic pranks. Prokofiev brusquely foists these bitonal, percussive bursts on the unsuspecting listener. There is no time for contemplation: the dogs of scorn are nipping at your feet.
Nevertheless even in his early years as a composer, Prokofiev was attentive to contemplation, as the twenty Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, demonstrate. These dreamy, fleeting thoughts and illusions, were inspired by the following words of the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont (1867–1943): “In every fugitive vision I see worlds / full of the changing play of rainbow hues.” They are Prokofiev’s “preludes”, aphoristic miniatures, diverse mood pieces, short tone-poems. Unlike Scriabin, Prokofiev was not in pursuit of mystical experience or the spiritual infrastructures of human existence. The nineteenth Vision, for example, depicts the hopeful excitement of an unruly crowd, rather than the ultimate meanings of the unrest.
Prokofiev’s Four Pieces, Op. 4, is a startling set. It is indeed a set, for it traverses the emotional spectrum: evocation (Reminiscences), exaltation (Ardour), desperation (Despair), and inspiration (Temptation). The fourth and last piece, also known as Suggestion Diabolique is a frightening, berserk explosion, the quintessence of shock and fury, frenetic anger, the conclusion and resolution to the ostinato of dejection that precedes it. The universe expands, then implodes, and Prokofiev gives us his interpretation of the Big Bang.
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