The Magazine

Prokofiev and the Wolf

Music under Stalin.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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PROKOFIEV GREW UP in the Ukrainian countryside, where his father managed an estate. His mother was exorbitantly musical, playing the piano six hours a day, and the young Sergei took in Beethoven and Chopin with his mother's milk. The boy began noodling around on the piano at the age of four. Listening to peasant folk songs supplemented his diet of keyboard études, and his first visit to Moscow with his parents, at the age of eight, introduced him to opera (Gounod's "Faust" and Borodin's "Prince Igor") and ballet (Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty"). The sights and sounds incited him to creative riot, as he tossed off his own first opera, started another straightaway, and produced a steady stream of briefer pieces.

Prokofiev's appreciative parents nurtured his gifts, enlisting an accomplished student from the Moscow Conservatory, Reinhold Gliére (a pretty fair composer himself), to spend a summer teaching the fledgling genius. When he was thirteen, they sent the boy off to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were the presiding deities. More influential in Prokofiev's development than the conservatory--they used to say there that he was unable to set down two correct notes in a row--were the salon "Evenings of Contemporary Music," where the musicians defied the tradition the conservatory sought to conserve. It was there that Prokofiev first heard Debussy, Ravel, and Schoenberg, that he met Stravinsky, and that he made the personal connections that would lead him to Serge Diaghilev, artistic director of the Ballets Russes in Paris.

When Prokofiev played some of his pieces for Diaghilev in London in 1914, Diaghilev commissioned a ballet score from the young composer. He thought the result warmed-over Stravinsky, however, and he rejected it. Prokofiev reconstituted the score as "The Scythian Suite," and its 1916 premiere in Petrograd established Prokofiev at the head of the Russian avant-garde--although his rejection by Diaghilev left him with the European reputation of a somewhat timid member of the pack.

Success energized and emboldened him. He knocked off the score for his opera "The Gambler," based on Dostoevsky's novel, in little more than a year. He took as his model Modest Musorgsky's iconoclastic rendering of Nikolai Gogol's play "Marriage," in which Musorgsky stripped opera of its customary panoply of musical showpieces and focused on giving the original dialogue a musical setting. Russia's most daring theatrical director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, championed Prokofiev's work; and, although the singers found the music dauntingly peculiar, everything was ready for the premiere at the Mariinsky Theater, when the February Revolution intervened. Not until 1929 would "The Gambler" make its stage debut.

DISAPPOINTMENT EVIDENTLY GOADED Prokofiev into action as effectively as triumph did. In 1917 he threw himself into work and produced the First Symphony, the First Violin Concerto, two piano sonatas, a cantata, and a cycle of brief piano pieces. Music was all Prokofiev had on his mind, and the significance of the cataclysm erupting around him eluded him almost entirely. Yet even to the mentally cloistered, street violence and the shortage of food and fuel did present a distraction, and in the spring of 1918 Prokofiev set off for New York, planning to spend several months abroad while things returned to normal back home.

His first New York piano recital, featuring works of his own as well as some by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, thrilled critics and audiences alike. A performance of his First Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony led to a commission from the Chicago Opera to compose "Love for Three Oranges," based on Meyerhold's adaptation of an eighteenth-century commedia dell'arte. Prokofiev tossed off both the bughouse libretto and the jauntily eccentric score in nine months, but the production would not hit the stage for another two years. He started another opera as well, in an effort to save his reputation from charges of smirking frivolity: "The Fiery Angel," demon-laden and maniacally serious, which would take him eight years to finish.

But the need to make a living chained him to the peripatetic performer's life, so that composing had to be done in furtive snatches. And the music he did find time to write met in this period with blunt incomprehension. Unable to wait for the New World to acquire the taste necessary to appreciate him, he removed himself to a Bavarian hamlet in 1922, hoping for fecund seclusion. Even in Europe, however, bringing in cash meant concertizing.