April 27, 2020

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev

Today is the129th anniversary of the birth of Russian composer Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev. Well, maybe it is, anyway. The composer apparently thought he was born on April 11, 1891, O.S. Russia was slow to modernize its calendar, and that date corresponded to April 23, 1891, in the West. His birth certificate, examined after his March 5, 1953, death, indicated that he actually had been born on April 15, O.S., or April 27 on our calendar. Although the date of Prokofiev’s birth is ambiguous, the date of his death certainly is not. The composer had the misfortunate to die on the same day that Joseph Stalin met his demise. Needless to say, the Soviet dictator got more press than did the Soviet musician.

Prokofiev in New York in 1918
Prokofiev in New York in 1918
I was excited when I got my first phonograph capable of playing LPs. The Montgomery Ward player came with a 10-inch recording comprising a collection of various classical compositions. I had seen Fantasia sometime earlier, and I began building my classical collection immediately with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I discovered that the main library in New Orleans lent not only books but also records. For some reason I do not recall, I checked out a recording of Malcolm Frager playing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. It was a Grammy-nominated recording, although I didn’t know that at the time and probably didn’t even know what a Gammy was. Anyway, I listened to the concerto over and over, discovering that I liked it and, at some level, believed that I understood it.

The Frager recording later became the first Prokofiev I’ve owned. Since then, I have accumulated recordings of most of the Prokofiev compositions that have been recorded. Early on, my collection required buying Soviet recordings of less familiar pieces, but these have been superseded by more modern LPs and CDs. Apparently, Prokofiev’s music has increased in popularity in recent years. In Pittsburgh, I have even been able to attend performances of Prokofiev orchestral compositions and ballets. My collection also includes books by and about the composer.

Many people know at least a few Prokofiev compositions, though they may not even know the name Sergei Prokofiev. His best-known piece is Peter and the Wolf, which, though charming and often performed, is hardly characteristic of Prokofiev’s oeuvre. Similarly uncharacteristic is his First, or “Classical,” Symphony. The symphony was written without the use of a piano and was intended to be the sort of orchestral composition Haydn might have written were he transported to the twentieth century. Somewhat more typical of Prokofiev’s work is the march from his opera The Love for Three Oranges. This piece became popular not from the opera itself but from its use as the theme song for the fifties radio drama The FBI in Peace and War.

It is difficult to definitively characterize Prokofiev’s music. He is most often cited for his “motoristic” rhythms and his lyricism, seemingly contradictory properties. His harmonies are distinctive—his son suggested that he wrote “normal” music and then “Prokofievized” it—as is his propensity to change keys in surprising ways. I think of Prokofiev as the inheritor and developer of the nineteenth-century romantic tradition uncontaminated by excursions into such oddities as twelve-tone serialism.

One of Prokofiev’s greatest musical contributions is his collection of nine piano sonatas. (A fragment of an unfinished tenth sonata remained at the time of his death.) He was a successful concert pianist for much of his life and had a deep understanding of the instrument and its potential. His Third Piano Concerto and Fifth Sympathy are much admired—certainly the most popular of their respective genres—though I am fonder of the aforementioned Second Concerto and Seventh Sympathy. (The second movement of the Second Piano Concerto is a perfect example of a breathless Prokofiev scherzo, by the way.) Prokofiev’s ballet music, particularly from his later ballets—Romeo and JulietCinderella, and The Story of the Stone Flower—is truly wonderful and often moving. Finally, I should mention that Prokofiev wrote several film scores, the most notable of which was for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The film music was later turned into a cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra. The mezzo-soprano solo, “The Field of the Dead,” a lament for a dead lover, is achingly beautiful.

As I seek to conclude this essay, I am reminded of other Prokofiev pieces that deserve mention, many of them favorites. I did not set out to produce an annotated catalog of the composer’s music, however. To celebrate the birthday, why not listen to some of Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev’s music. If you own no recordings, YouTube can provide you with a good many options.

Happy listening!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.