The Magazine

From Russia with Love

For Prokofiev, it was unrequited.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Apparently displeased with the ballet in this form, Prokofiev recycled the music in three different orchestral suites, all exhibiting the tenor saxophone, cornet, viola d'amore, and mandolins that give the original score its exotic color. For the Bard festival, the original "happy ending" version of the ballet was resurrected, with the permission of the Russian State Archive and the Prokofiev family, and a stunning new choreography was created by the Mark Morris Dance Group. Following the premiere at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard, the production went on the road, with appearances in New York, London, Chicago, and other cities.
Prokofiev was born in 1891 in Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the only surviving child of agronomist Sergey Alekseyevich Prokofiev and his arts-loving wife Mariya Zitkova. Prokofiev was tutored at home by his parents and governesses, and his musical gifts emerged early on. He wrote his first piano pieces at age 5, his first opera by age 10.

After studying with the composer Reinhold Glière he entered the
St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating with diplomas in composition, piano, and conducting. His first and second piano concertos, with their flashy virtuosity and dissonant yet palatable idiom, were an instant success, as was his Scythian Suite (1915), a work derived from an aborted collaboration with the choreographer Serge Diaghilev. The Classical Symphony, a groundbreaking neoclassical work issued three years before Stravinsky's similarly derivative Pulcinella, marked Prokofiev as a trendsetting composer.

But the 1918 Revolution interrupted his career. Although he later claimed to have felt enthusiasm for the revolution, he decided at the time to emigrate, traveling to the United States to pursue the life of a concert performer. As Stephen D. Press points out, Prokofiev came to the United States too soon: America was not yet ready for his rigorous works and their explosive cacophonies. His inauspicious arrival, just after the great influenza epidemic, was followed by a difficult period of trying to make ends meet. Sergey Rachmaninoff was far more successful as a recitalist, presenting piano programs that mixed his own works with non-Russian classics. Prokofiev was more intent on pushing the modern Russian repertory, and American audiences were not receptive.

He was also plagued by bad luck. Take the problematic production of The Love for Three Oranges. The commission came during Prokofiev's second year in America from general manager Cleofonte Campanini of the Chicago Opera. Prokofiev, a meticulous and disciplined composer, finished the work on schedule, completing it (as he proudly noted) at 2 P.M. on the due date, October 1, 1919. But plans to produce the opera that season were disrupted by Campanini's death in December, and the following year the premiere was postponed once again because the company was unwilling to pay the production costs. Prokofiev, new to America but quick to catch on to its customs, sued for lost compensation.

An agreement was finally reached, and The Love for Three Oranges opened in December 1921, two years after Campanini's death. The work is an enjoyable parody of traditional operatic gestures, and Prokofiev claimed to have used a simpler musical language for American audiences. Still, the unfamiliar musical vocabulary and the complicated libretto did not please American operagoers--even changing the Russian to French (L' amour des trois oranges) did not help--and reviews were mixed. Only the March won unqualified praise.

"The music, I fear, is too much for this generation," Edward Moore wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "After intensive study and close observation at rehearsal and performance, I detected the beginnings of two tunes. .  .  . For the rest of it, Mr. Prokofiev might well have loaded up a shotgun with several thousand notes of varying lengths and discharged them against the side of a blank wall."

After four years struggling to make ends meet, Prokofiev moved to Europe, eventually settling in Paris in 1923. There he found the atmosphere more conducive to the composition and performance of modern pieces. He established important ties with Diaghilev and the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, both fellow expatriates. The First Violin Concerto, premiered by Koussevitzky, the ballet The Steel Step, choreographed by Diaghilev, and the opera The Gambler, based on Dostoyevsky's novel, show a composer writing in a brittle, futuristic style with static, closed forms.