Harlow Robinson. Sergei Prokofiev, A Biography
With a new foreword and afterword by the author
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002
(Original publication Viking Penguin, 1987.)
Daniel Jaffé. Sergey Prokofiev
(20th Century Composers Series)
London: Phaidon, 1998
Selected Letters Of Sergei Prokofiev
Translated, edited and introduced by Harlow Robinson
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998
Sergei Prokofiev, one of the most gifted of 20th Century composers, and one with one of the most distinctive voices, began as the bad boy of Russian music, because even as a young and prolific student composer he insisted on going his own way harmonically and rhythmically. When he first went to America the term Scythian clung to him and his music. Parisian audiences considered him retrograde, after having heard Stravinsky, and Prokofiev ended his career trying to write music that was simple and popularly accessible as if his life depended on it. It very probably did. He still was not able to get much of it past the bureaucratic censors in the Soviet Union and he, along with Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Myaskovsky, was condemned, five years before he died, as a "formalist." His biographer Harlow Robinson has called him a musical elitist, though not a social snob. All his life he had a terrible time getting his operas and ballets produced, even after they had been commissioned and accepted, and some of them did not premiere until long after his death.
It was a surprise to me to learn that his ballet Roméo and Juliet, a popular staple of the modern repertoire, was considered undanceable at first, because it has a degree of syncopation that Tchaikovsky's ballets do not. Not until the music became familiar though the suites Prokofiev then compiled did it become acceptable to the Kirov dancers. A fascinating episode involving Prokofiev and Galena Ulanova, the first Juliet occurred at a celebration: when Prokofiev danced an ordinary foxtrot with her, she had great difficulty following his lead until she eventually caught his "unusual and utterly marvelous rhythm." (Robinson, 374.) She had begun to wonder if she could dance at all!
Prokofiev re-wrote a number of his works repeatedly, either because of personal dissatisfaction or objections from directors and bureaucrats. The most galling of the latter sort again involved Roméo and Juliet, where there was actual meddling and re-writing of some music by others. This kind of outrage was unusual, but from the time of his early collaboration with Diaghilev, who commissioned several ballets, he often rewrote on request. Diaghilev considered him, if anything, too pliable. Prokofiev actually liked to write some music to close general specifications, as in the case of his film scores. He worked pleasurably with Eisenstein and Meyerhold, until the latter came to a dreadful end in Stalin's purges. His first (unperformed) ballet for Diaghilev was rewritten as the Scythian Suite. His Third Symphony came from themes of Fiery Angel, and the Fourth Symphony came from themes of Prodigal Son, and was rewritten later. His Sinfonietta was rewritten more than once and has more than one opus number. His method of working was a matter of impressively steady daily work rather than a matter of inspired spurts and rests. Interestingly, some of his most popular works, such as the Classical Symphony, the Fifth Symphony, Peter and the Wolf, and the violin concerti, were written quickly and easily.
Prokofiev's personal life included as much tragedy as his professional life. He left Russia during the Revolution, after he had completed his studies, and returned at the worst possible time, just before the great purges began in the late 1930's. He had been considered a foreigner in the West and when he returned to Russia after many years abroad he was considered a foreigner there, too, and envied his international success besides. Some of that success was based on his powerful pianism; an observer said he appeared to have fingers of steel. It did not help that personally, Prokofiev appeared to be arrogant, condescending, tactless, and even cruel sometimes. However, he succeeded in holding the lifelong friendship of Myaskovsky and he promoted the works of that composer and other Russian composers in the West. Prokofiev gained the love of several women, one of whom was foiled in her attempt to elope with him, and two of whom married him. He abandoned his first wife, Lina, his nearly-grown sons, and their luxurious apartment, after many years, to be with a woman half his age, named Mira. Lina later disappeared into Stalin's gulag, right at the time Prokofiev himself was in trouble, and right at the time Sergey and Mira married (without a prior divorce, and avoiding bigamy only by the technicality that the first marriage was not recognized in the Soviet union.) Mira stayed with him until his death, which followed several years of bad health following a concussion, and which happened to occur on the same day as Stalin's, in 1953.
The most satisfying of these biographies, all of which include attention to life, works and times, is the oldest, Robinson's and his edition of Prokofiev's correspondence adds much to one's understanding of the biographical use of these sources. Much of what I said above is based on Robinson's work. His biography is long enough to give a full narrative account, in addition to meaningful musical commentary, and is clearly written.
I really wish I could say the same about the initial volume of David Nice's which, although seemingly well researched is not terribly well written and would have profited from another draft or two, or a really good editor. The book could also benefit from a bit of reorganization, bringing together more of what is said about various works. Its outstanding stylistic fault is a frequent and maddening lack of clarity stemming from sentences and paragraphs crowded with reference to different persons or things which then are referred back to with pronouns rather than names. The reader must then wonder which one he is referring to and sometimes this requires an inference. That really slows one down. I hope the second volume will read better. Certainly the second volume, on Prokofiev's Soviet years, is to be much looked forward to, because Robinson's biography was written before the end of the Soviet Union, and many more sources are presumably available now.
Among the things I learned about Prokofiev from Nice is detail about Prokofiev's initial dislike, or failure to appreciate if you will, of major works by his contemporaries, Debussy or Ravel, for instance, as well as Roussel and Stravinsky. Prokofiev told Stravinsky that the opening theme of The Firebird was original with Rimsky-Korsakov. No surprise that Prokofiev and Stravinsky never became close. Prokofiev did not like Stravinsky's neoclassicism, in spite of having written his Classical Symphony and Sinfonietta, in a passing phase. The Classical Symphony, by the way, about which one will look in vain for an adequate discussion in any of these books, except for the brief Gavotte, was the result of its composer's studies with Tcherepnin, who liked Haydn and Mozart, and whom Prokofieff held in the kind of regard he did not extend to Liadov or Glazunov. (His first tutor as a child in the countryside was the young Glière, incidentally.)
Nice includes a great deal of commentary about particular works, with extensive musical examples, which the other authors do not include. He discusses Prokofiev's songs and piano pieces, even the early ones, in detail. Much of his focus is on dissonant harmony, to a degree I find a bit strange.
For anyone looking for a relatively brief book on Prokofiev's life and work, beautifully printed and lavishly illustrated, I can strongly recommend Daniel Jaffé's. It covers Prokofiev's whole life and career, with enough detail on the works and their composition to make it a useful reference in addition to a good read. In fact, I bought it after reading it, not before.
Copyright © 2004 by R. James Tobin