About this Recording
8.573435 - PROKOFIEV, S.: Childhood Manuscripts (Dossin)
English 

Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Childhood Manuscripts • Old Grandmother’s Tales, Op. 31 • Six Pieces, Op. 52

 

‘At the age of three I struck my forehead against the edge of an iron chest and raised a bump that lasted for about 25 years. “Perhaps all your talent lies in that bump”, remarked an artist who painted my portrait many years later.’ While stopping short of vainglory, this anecdote nevertheless demonstrates that even from an early age Prokofiev clearly knew his own worth. The recollection appears in his short 1941 autobiography, which makes compelling reading on account of its unconstrained candour.

Prokofiev relates how, as a very small child, he loved to listen to his mother playing Chopin and Beethoven on the piano. She recognised her son’s musical proclivities and gave him every encouragement. ‘When I was five and a half I picked out a little tune and played it several times over. My mother decided to write it down […] It was in F major without a B flat, which was an indication not of any preference for the Lydian mode but rather of my reluctance to tackle the black notes. But in writing it down my mother told me it would sound better with a “little black note”, and she accordingly put it in.’

For the eight-year-old Seryozha (as Sergey was known in the family), the 20th century could hardly have got off to a more auspicious start. His parents decided to celebrate the New Year of 1900 by travelling to Moscow. As a country boy, Seryozha was astonished by the bustle and clamour of the big city, but what impressed him most were his visits to the theatre. Gounod’s Faust, Borodin’s Prince Igor and Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty left him spellbound: ‘I didn’t know whether it was the stage, or the theatre, or just my head that was spinning.’ He immediately began composing his first stage work, an opera, which he called The Giant. In December 1901, the Prokofievs made another visit to Moscow and St Petersburg. By now it was becoming clear that Seryozha’s musical education had to be considered seriously, and the composer Sergey Taneyev recommended that the family should employ a live-in music tutor. So, in the summer of 1902 no less a figure than the composer Reinhold Glière arrived at the Prokofievs’ estate in Sontsovka to take care of Sergey’s musical education.

Glière was the ideal teacher. Kind and generous, he knew exactly how to strike the right balance between fun and strict musical discipline. Prokofiev loved the way that Glière always took him seriously, even when participating in childish games. This made the boy highly receptive to Glière’s rigorous teaching methods, which included a good deal of keyboard improvisation, a skill that Prokofiev was able to employ with great effect for the rest of his life. He later claimed that by 1904 he was writing pieces at the rate of about a dozen a year. In addition to operas and a symphony, his works included the earliest of the piano miniatures presented here: the Tarantella in D minor, the Melody in E flat major, the Presto in C, the March in F, the Vivo in G minor and the Romance in D minor.

In 1904, at the age of 13, Prokofiev became the youngest-ever student to be enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. His teachers there included Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov. The Revolution of 1905 had a chaotic effect on the day-to-day running of the Conservatoire. Of all the upheavals recorded by Prokofiev, the one that affected him most directly was the fate of his teachers whose political views were at odds with those of the more conservative-minded board of directors. Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov were all initially suspended, but were subsequently reinstated. Judging from his own later remarks, Prokofiev found Liadov’s harmony lessons particularly irksome, and he seems to have been a disruptive pupil, at least for some of the time. Despite such youthful cockiness, he tirelessly applied himself to his work, and in the spring and summer of 1905 he privately honed his knowledge of harmony, no doubt mindful of Glière’s earlier exhortations about the vital importance of acquiring a thorough understanding of the subject. The Allegretto in A minor, the Allegretto in C minor, the Allegro in A flat and the Minuet in F minor all date from this period.

In December 1908 Prokofiev made his first public appearance as a composer-pianist, and his powerful command of piano technique stunned his listeners. One particularly favourable review praised his piano pieces for their ‘sincerity, absence of artificiality and intentional search for the harmonically unusual’. This concert was shared by several other students from the St Petersburg Conservatoire, including the mature student Nikolay Myaskovsky, who was ten years older than Prokofiev. Despite their age difference, the two composers had already established a very fruitful musical friendship, which blossomed on account of their shared dislike of Liadov’s teaching methods and their mutual admiration of the piano music of Grieg. During the summer holidays they would exchange letters and discuss music at length. Prokofiev wrote in his autobiography that ‘this correspondence gave me much more than Liadov’s dull lessons’. It was during the early stages of his friendship with Myaskovsky that Prokofiev completed the remaining youthful pieces included on this disc: the Scherzo in C, the Allegro in D minor, the Waltz in G minor, the March in F minor, the Prestissimo in C, the Étude-Scherzo in C, the Fugue in D and the Scherzo in D. When he showed his compositions to Myaskovsky, the adolescent Prokofiev was delighted when the older composer declared: ‘I never suspected what a little viper we had nursing in our bosom.’

Prokofiev finally left the Conservatoire in 1914 after playing his Piano Concerto No. 1. He subsequently maintained that this work was his ‘first more or less mature composition in matters of artistic conception and fulfilment’. Although dismissed by one critic as ‘musical filth’, it was staunchly supported by Myaskovsky. Four years, one world war and one revolution later, Prokofiev composed Old Grandmother’s Tales, Op. 31, in 1918, by which time he was living in New York and suffering from something akin to homesickness. Certainly, there is a distinct mood of nostalgia about these pieces, especially in the fourth and final number, which is reminiscent of Rachmaninov, a composer whose musical thinking rarely converged with Prokofiev’s. The rocking accompaniments invite us to imagine a child sitting wideeyed on its grandmother’s knee as she tells a story.

In 1931 Prokofiev selected movements from some of his earlier works and republished them in the form of arrangements for solo piano. They appeared with the rather unexciting title Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 52. The first three are taken from The Prodigal Son, a 1929 ballet based on the Gospel of Saint Luke, which Prokofiev produced in Paris in collaboration with the choreographer George Balanchine. The fourth number, originally composed in 1920, comes from one of Prokofiev’s five Songs Without Words, Op. 35, for voice and piano. The fifth piece had first appeared only a few months earlier in the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 50. The last piece is from the Sinfonietta, Op. 5/48, a work dating back to Prokofiev’s student years but which was subsequently revised in 1929. Incidentally, the second number (Rondo) resurfaced yet again in the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Each of the Six Pieces is dedicated to a leading concert pianist of the day, including Arthur Rubinstein, Alexander Borovsky and Vladimir Horowitz.

Anthony Short


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