Monday, April 1, 2013

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."

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