Thursday, September 18, 2008

Prokofiev and His World

It is safe to say that Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) is among the most popular 20th-century composers -- indeed, "beloved" might not be putting too fine a point on it. This emotional connection has rested to some extent on the broad appeal and consequent familiarity of a generous handful of works. Most famous among them is "Peter and the Wolf" (1936), a symphonic dramatization of an old Russian folk tale with a narration that explains to the audience the different instruments of the orchestra. But in the composer's hit parade, Peter and his lupine predator rub shoulders with other masterpieces: the Haydnesque "Classical" symphony, First Violin Concerto and Third Piano Concerto (all 1917); the tartly comedic opera "The Love for Three Oranges" (1921); the dramatic Fifth Symphony (1945); the powerful opera "War and Peace" (1941-52); film scores for "Lieutenant Kizhe" (1933) and "Alexander Nevsky" (1938); and of course the ubiquitous ballets "Romeo and Juliet" (1935-36) and "Cinderella" (1940-44).
Regardless of their well-deserved popularity, however, these works form only the tip of Prokofiev's mighty oeuvre. On the consecutive weekends of Aug. 8 to 10 and Aug. 15 to 17, audiences at the celebrated Bard Music Festival, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., will have the opportunity to examine Prokofiev's compositions in the context of the tumultuous times in which he produced them. Characteristically, the selections will also include familiar and rare music by a wide range of Prokofiev's contemporaries, among them Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Reinhold Glière, Nikolay Myaskovsky, Aleksandr Scriabin, John Alden Carpenter, Francis Poulenc, George Gershwin and Vernon Duke (the Russian-born Vladimir Dukelsky).
"Prokofiev inherited a combination of Rimsky-Korsakov's folk-inspired late-Romanticism and the esoteric mystical symbolism of Scriabin but decided that the modern demanded something different," observes Leon Botstein, the festival's co-director, who will be conducting the American Symphony Orchestra in performances of major works by Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Stravinsky and others. "He was fired by the idea to write great music for the masses. And without sacrificing the irony and sarcastic humor that we associate with modernity, Prokofiev succeeded because he is the most successful tunesmith among the modernists."
Like his younger contemporary and, in posterity's eyes, his rival, Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75), Prokofiev is firmly identified with Soviet Russia under the stringent regime of Joseph Stalin -- coincidentally, Stalin and Prokofiev died on the same day. Yet one of the themes of Bard's Prokofiev "rediscovery" is illustrated on the cover of this year's program, a handsome photograph of the natty young composer striding along a Chicago street during his sojourn in America.
From 1918 -- when the Russian Revolution promised to make things difficult for creative folk at home -- to 1922, Prokofiev lived in America and summered in Europe, hoping to establish himself in the U.S. as a composer and concert pianist. Unfortunately, while he enjoyed moderate success, writing his "Love for Three Oranges" on commission from the Chicago Lyric Opera, he was unable to unseat Stravinsky from his position at the head of music's vanguard, and he could not escape the overshadowing presence of Rachmaninoff as a pianist.
For several more years Prokofiev tried his luck in the West, settling first in Germany and then in Paris, before going back to the U.S.S.R. for good in 1936. Hence the Bard Festival program opens with an essay that sets the themes for the two weekends: "The One Who Returned" for the first, and "The Faustian Bargain" for the second. Both the themes and the concerts that illustrate them promise fascinating investigations not only of Prokofiev's music -- in the context of music by major Russian and non-Russian contemporaries -- but of the enigmatic personality of the composer himself.
Simon Morrison of Princeton University, a Prokofiev scholar and the editor of this year's festival book, "Prokofiev and His World" (Princeton University Press), notes that "one of the very important things that we will tease out during the festival is Prokofiev's spirituality as a composer. Throughout his career, Prokofiev's strong commitment to Christian Science [which he began to study in 1924, after moving to southern Germany] conditioned his outlook. Following his fateful relocation to the Soviet Union in 1936, the adjustments to Soviet aesthetic doctrine that he was obliged to make were fairly easy for him on a conceptual level, because certain political ideals -- of transcendence and optimism and spiritual uplift -- resonated with spiritual ideals to which he was already long committed."
As examples of this positive outlook influencing his musical aesthetic, Dr. Morrison cites Prokofiev's original -- and suppressed -- happy ending to "Romeo and Juliet," which, with the agreement of the composer's heirs, Dr. Morrison resurrected. (Having received its world premiere performances by the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Bard Summerscape festival in July, the production, choreographed by Mr. Morris, begins a world tour this fall.)
Another example is the wartime Fifth Symphony, which, according to Dr. Morrison, Prokofiev himself described in Soviet media and in an interview for Time magazine as being about spiritual uplift, about striving to overcome obstacles, about striving to attain a higher form of human experience. "That is what Communist idealogy preached under Stalin, and that is very much what Prokofiev believed he could achieve through his faith."
Mention of the Fifth Symphony brings up another aspect of Prokofiev's oeuvre in comparison with that of Shostakovich, namely the expressive aspects of their music. When Shostakovich writes about wartime horrors, for example in his Seventh ("Leningrad") and 13th ("Baba Yar") symphonies, the notes forcefully convey his anguish over the events. Conversely, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony conveys more a sense of the composer as observer and ultimately as commentator.
"Shostakovich's music is confessional; Prokofiev's is not," observes Dr. Botstein. "It is music as craft. In Shostakovich's case, the craft is subordinate to the need to use music as a personal vehicle. For Prokofiev, the issue is how to adapt craft to the culture of political expectation.
"In Prokofiev's music the person of the composer is at one step removed, which is why you can't unravel the music to find the man. But you have to understand the man to understand why his music takes the shape it does, and why, despite his openness to a variety of influences in Russia, Europe and America, Prokofiev's music always has a recognizable consistency -- a simplicity, a transparency, an absence of pretension, an absolutely brilliant use of form. Prokofiev is enigmatic, but he's original from day one."Mr. Scherer writes about classical music for the Journal. His current book is "A History of American Classical Music" (Sourcebooks).