Monday, April 1, 2013

21ST-CENTURY MUSIC / April 2013


April 2013

Volume 20, Number 4

Sergei Prokofiev to 1918 / Phillip George

Chronicle of February 2013

Illustration / Sergei Prokofiev

Editorial Staff

Mark Alburger


Harriet March Page

Patti Noel Deuter

Erling Wold

Elizabeth Agnew
Alexis Alrich
Katherine Buono
Ken Bullock
A.J. Churchill
David Cleary
Jeff Dunn
Phillip George
Elliot Harmon
Brian Holmes
Jeff Kaliss
John Lane
Arel Lucas
Michael McDonagh
Chip Michael
Tom Moore
William Rowland
Lisa Scola Prosek
Andrew Shapiro
Alice Shields


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Prokofiev to 1918 / Phillip George

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (April 23, 1891, Sontsovka [Krasne], Ukraine - March 5, 1953) was born on an isolated rural estate in the Yekaterinoslav Governorate of the Russian Empire.  His father, originally from Moscow, was an agricultural engineer, while his mother was described by Reinhold Glière as: "a tall woman with magnificent, intelligent eyes ... who knew how to create around herself a warm, natural atmosphere." Having lost two daughters she devoted her life to music and spent two months a year in Moscow or St. Petersburg taking piano lessons.

Prokofiev was inspired by hearing his mother practising the piano in the evenings – mostly works by Chopin and Beethoven – and composed his first piano composition at the age of five, an F-Lydian Indian Gallop, written down by his mother, reflecting the young composer's "reluctance to tackle the black notes'.

By seven, he had also learned to play chess, which became a passion alongside music.  At nine, he composed his first opera, The Giant, as well as an overture and various other pieces.

In 1902, Prokofiev's mother met Sergei Taneyev, director of the Moscow Conservatory, who initially suggested that Prokofiev should start lessons in piano and composition with Alexander Goldenweiser.  When Taneyev was unable to arrange this, he instead arranged for composer and pianist Reinhold Glière to spend the summer of 1902 in Sontsovka teaching Prokofiev.  This first series of lessons culminated, at the 11-year-old Prokofiev's insistence, with the composer making his first attempt to write a symphony.

Glière subsequently revisited Sontsovka the following summer to give further tuition.  When decades later Prokofiev wrote about his lessons with Glière, he gave due credit to Glière's sympathetic qualities as a teacher but complained that Glière had introduced him to "square" phrase structure and conventional modulations which he subsequently had to unlearn.  Nonetheless, equipped with the necessary theoretical tools, Prokofiev started experimenting with dissonant harmonies and unusual time signatures in a series of short piano pieces which he called "ditties" in ternary form, laying the basis for his own style.

After a while, Prokofiev's mother felt that the isolation in Sontsovka was restricting his further musical development, yet his parents hesitated over starting their son on a musical career at such an early age.

Then in 1904, Prokofiev and his mother visited Saint Petersburg to explore the possibility of their moving there for his education.[

They were introduced to Alexander Glazunov, professor at the Conservatory, who asked to see Prokofiev and his music; Glazunov was so impressed that he urged Prokofiev's mother that her son apply.   By this point Prokofiev had composed two more operas, Desert Islands and The Feast during the Plague, and was working on his fourth, Undine.  He passed the introductory tests and entered the Conservatory that year.

Several years younger than most of his classmates, he was viewed as eccentric and arrogant, and he often expressed dissatisfaction with much of the education, which he found boring.

During this period he studied under, among others, Alexander Winkler,[ Anatoly Lyadov, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (though when Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908, Prokofiev noted that he had only studied orchestration with him 'after a fashion' – that is, he was just one of many students in a heavily attended class—and regretted that he otherwise "never had the opportunity to study with him").

Prokofiev also shared classes with the composers Boris Asafyev and Nikolai Myaskovsky, the latter becoming a relatively close and lifelong friend.

As a member of the Saint Petersburg music scene, Prokofiev developed a reputation as a musical rebel, while getting praise for his original compositions, which he would perform on the piano.

In 1909, he graduated from his class in composition with unimpressive marks. He continued at the Conservatory, studying piano under Anna Yesipova and conducting under Nikolai Tcherepnin.

In 1910, Prokofiev's father died and Sergei's financial support ceased. Fortunately he had started making a name for himself as a composer, although he frequently caused scandals with his forward-looking works.  The pianistic Four Etudes, Op. 2 (1909) and Four Pieces, Op. 4 (1908) are highly chromatic and dissonant works.

In 1911, help arrived from renowned Russian musicologist and critic Alexander Ossovsky, who wrote a supportive letter to music publisher Boris P. Jurgenson, which resulted in a contract.

Sarcasms for piano, Op. 17, was produced the next year, making extensive use of polytonality,

Prokofiev composed his first two piano concertos in 1912 and 13, the latter of which caused a scandal at its premiere (August 23).  According to one account, the audience left the hall with exclamations of "'To hell with this futuristic music!  The cats on the roof make better music!'", but the modernists were in rapture.

The composer made his first foreign trip in 1913, travelling to Paris and London where he first encountered Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in the year of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

In 1914, Prokofiev finished his career at the Conservatory by entering the "battle of the pianos," a competition open to the five best students for which the prize was a Schreder grand piano: Prokofiev won by performing his Piano Concerto No. 1.

Soon afterwards, he journeyed to London where he first contacted Diaghilev, who commissioned Ala and Lolli, but rejected the work-in-progress when the composer brought it to him in Italy in 1915. Diaghilev instead commissioned Prokofiev to compose Chout, Op. 21 (The Fool, originally The Tale of the Buffoon who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons).  Under Diaghilev's guidance, the composer chose his subject from a collection of folktales by the ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev.  The story, concerning a clown and a series of confidence tricks, had been previously suggested to Diaghilev by Stravinsky as a possible subject for a ballet, and impressario and his choreographer Léonide Massine helped Prokofiev to shape the scenario.

Near the outbreak of World War I, Prokofiev defeated José Raúl Capablanca in a simultaneous exhibition match and  returned to the Conservatory.  He studied organ in order to avoid conscription.

Among the pieces of the next years were Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 19 (1916), and The Gambler, Op. 24, after Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, but rehearsals of the both were plagued by problems and their scheduled 1917 premieres had to be canceled because of the Russian Revolution.  In the summer of that year, Prokofiev composed his Symphony No. 1 ("Classical"), Op. 25 --his own nickname, written in the style that, the composer speculated, Joseph Haydn would have used had he been alive at the time -- in a neoclassicism that predates Stravinsky's Histoire (1918) and Pulcinella (1920), but was not performed until three years after the latter.

The first performance of the Violin Concerto was given April 21, 1918, after which the composer stayed briefly with his mother in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus.  Worried about the white forces capturing Saint Petersburg, Prokofiev returned to the city, but, by then, he was determined to leave Russia, at least temporarily.  Seeing no room for his experimental music, he he headed for the United States in May.  Before leaving, Prokofiev developed acquaintances with senior Bolsheviks including Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar for Education, who told him: "You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way."

Chronicle of February 2013

February 26

Death of pianist Van Cliburn (b. Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., 7/12/34, Shreveport, LA), at 78.  Fort Worth, TX.  'Cliburn was part of an exceptional American generation of pianists in promising stages of their own careers, among them Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis and Gary Graffman. And the Tchaikovsky competition came at a time when American morale had been shaken in 1957 by the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. . . .  In his 1999 memoir, The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times, [Max] Frankel recalled his coverage of Mr. Cliburn’s triumph in Moscow: 'The Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America. . . . We now know that [Nikita S.] Khrushchev . . . personally approved Cliburn’s victory,” he wrote, “making Van a hero at home and a symbol of a new maturity in relations between the two societies.”  Mr. Cliburn was at first oblivious to the political ramifications of the prize.  'Oh, I never thought about all that,' Mr. Cliburn recalled in 2008 during an interview with The Times. 'I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music.' The Russians, he added, 'reminded me of Texans.' . . .  Cliburn was a naturally gifted pianist whose enormous hands had an uncommonly wide span. He developed a commanding technique, cultivated an exceptionally warm tone and manifested deep musical sensitivity. At its best his playing had a surging Romantic fervor, but one leavened by an unsentimental restraint that seemed peculiarly American. The towering Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, a juror for the competition, described Mr. Cliburn as a genius -- a word, he added, 'I do not use lightly about performers.'  His subsequent explorations of wider repertory grew increasingly insecure. During the 1960's he played less and less. By 1978 he had retired from the stage; he returned in 1989, but performed rarely. Ultimately, his promise and potential were never fulfilled, but his great talent was apparent early on. . . .  His mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan, a pianist who had studied in New York with Arthur Friedheim, a longtime student of Liszt, had hoped to have a career in music, but her mother forbade it. Instead she married Harvey Lavan Cliburn, a purchasing agent for an oil company, a laconic man of moderate income.  An only child, Van started studying with his mother when he was 3. By 4 he was playing in student recitals. When he was 6 the family moved to Kilgore, Tex. (population 10,500). Although Van’s father had hoped his son would become a medical missionary, he realized that the boy was destined for music, so he added a practice studio to the garage.  As a plump 13-year-old Mr. Cliburn won a statewide competition to perform with the Houston Symphony and he played the Tchaikovsky concerto. Thinking her son should study with a more well-connected and advanced teacher, Mr. Cliburn’s mother took him to New York, where he attended master classes at Juilliard and was offered a scholarship to the school’s preparatory division. But Van adamantly refused to study with anyone but his mother, so they returned to Kilgore.  He spoke with affecting respect for his mother’s excellence as a teacher and attributed the lyrical elegance of his playing to her. 'My mother had a gorgeous singing voice,' he said. 'She always told me that the first instrument is the human voice. When you are playing the piano, it is not digital. You must find a singing sound -- the ‘eye of the sound,’ she called it.'  By 16 he had shot up to 6 feet 4 inches. Excruciatingly self-conscious, he was excused from athletics out of fear that he might injure his hands. He later recalled his adolescence outside the family as 'a living hell.'  On graduation at 17 he finally accepted a scholarship from Juilliard and moved to New York. Studying with the Russian-born piano pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne, he entered the diploma rather than the degree program to spare himself from having to take 60 semester hours of academic credits. Even his close friends said he displayed little intellectual curiosity outside of music.  Winning the Leventritt award in 1954 was a major achievement. Though held annually, the competition had not given a prize in three years because the judges had not deemed any contestant worthy. But this panel, which included Rudolf Serkin, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein, was united in its assessment of Mr. Cliburn.  That same year he graduated from Juilliard and was to have begun graduate-level studies. But performing commitments as a result of the Leventritt kept him on tour.  In 1957 he was inducted into the Army but released after two days because he was found to be prone to nosebleeds. By this point, despite his success, his career was stagnating and he was $7,000 in debt. His managers at Columbia Artists wanted him to undertake a European tour. But Ms. Lhevinne encouraged him instead to enter the first Tchaikovsky competition.  A $1,000 grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Aid to Music program made the journey to the Soviet Union possible. The contestants’ Moscow expenses were paid by the Soviet government.  The Russian people warmed to Mr. Cliburn from the preliminary rounds. There was something endearing about the contrast between his gawky boyishness and his complete absorption while performing. At the piano he bent far back from the keys, staring into space, his head tilted in a kind of pained ecstasy. During rapid-fire passages he would lean in close, almost scowling at his fingers. On the night of the final round, when Mr. Cliburn performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, a solo work by Dmitry Kabalevsky (written as a test piece for the competition) and the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3, the audience broke into chants of “First prize! First prize!” Emil Gilels, one of the judges, went backstage to embrace him.  The jury agreed with the public, and Moscow celebrated. At a Kremlin reception, Mr. Cliburn was bearhugged by Khrushchev. 'Why are you so tall?' Khrushchev asked. 'Because I am from Texas,' Mr. Cliburn answered.  His prize consisted of 25,000 rubles (about $2,500), though he was permitted to take only half of that out of the country. Immediately, concert offers for enormous fees engulfed him. . . .  Yet as early as 1959 his attempts to broaden his repertory were not well received. That year, for a New York Philharmonic benefit concert at Carnegie Hall conducted by Bernstein, Mr. Cliburn played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, the Schumann Concerto and the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3. Howard Taubman, reviewing the program in The Times, called the Mozart performance 'almost a total disappointment.' Only the Prokofiev was successful, he wrote, praising the brashness, exuberance and crispness of the playing. . . .  Despite the criticism, Mr. Cliburn tried to expand his repertory, playing concertos by MacDowell and Prokofiev and solo works by Samuel Barber (the demanding Piano Sonata), Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Liszt. But the artistic growth and maturity that were expected of him never fully came. Even as a personality, Mr. Cliburn began to seem out of step. In the late 1950's this baby-faced, teetotaling, churchgoing, wholesome Texan had fit the times. But to young Americans of the late 1960's he seemed a strained, stiff representative of the demonized establishment.  In 1978, at 44, Mr. Cliburn, now a wealthy man, announced his withdrawal from concertizing. He moved with his mother into a magnificent home in the Fort Worth area, where he hosted frequent late-night dinner parties.  As a young man Mr. Cliburn was briefly linked romantically with a soprano classmate from Juilliard. But even then he was discreet in his homosexuality. That discretion was relaxed considerably in 1966 when, at 32, he met Thomas E. Zaremba, who was 19.  The details of their romantic relationship exploded into public view in 1996, when Mr. Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Mr. Cliburn seeking 'multiple millions,' according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Mr. Zaremba, who had moved to Michigan and become a funeral director, claimed that during his 17-year relationship with Mr. Cliburn he had served as a business associate and promoter and that he had helped care for Mr. Cliburn’s mother, who died in 1994 at 97. The suit was eventually dismissed.  Mr. Cliburn returned to the concert stage in 1987, but his following performances were infrequent. The stress involved was almost palpable on May 21, 1998, when, to inaugurate a concert hall in Fort Worth, Mr. Cliburn played the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 with the Fort Worth Symphony, suffered a memory lapse in the final movement and collapsed onstage. He was given oxygen by a medical team backstage and taken to a hospital.  'It was a massive panic attack,' a friend, John Ardoin, who was a critic at The Dallas Morning News, said at the time. 'It was sheer exhaustion and nervousness. Van had given a solo recital two days earlier, a really first-class performance, a black-tie affair with all of the cultural and political officialdom of Texas in attendance, and he was overwhelmed by it all.'  His last public appearance was in September, when he spoke at a concert, at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Van Cliburn Foundation. He is survived by Thomas L. Smith, with whom he shared his home for many years" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 2/27/13].