Click on photos to enlarge.
I asked my wife Oksana Mysina why she loves Sergei Prokofiev and her answer came quickly: “For everything.” I’m sure Sergei’s mother would be happy with that answer, but I wasn’t. “But what is it specifically?” I asked predictably. “It’s his dissonances,” she shot back. “They are unlike anyone else’s. You can tell a piece was written by Prokofiev instantly. His music is extremely expressive, but never sentimental.”
Anyone who reads this space knows by now that I am a typical, deeply handicapped American when it comes to classical music. I know Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in part, because I made myself listen to it as an educational exercise decades ago. If I remember correctly, I liked it very much – but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it today, unless I went back and listened again.
“Peter and the Wolf” is a different story. I remember that extremely well; I listened to that a lot as a kid and I loved it. I still do. I love the playfulness and humor of it. That reminds me, by the way, that Oksana recorded an abbreviated version of “Peter and the Wolf” with the Russian National Wind Quintet several years ago. I really love their version. You can see it on YouTube.
Interestingly, for me, anyway, is the difference in the way that Russian and American cultures have locked onto certain composers and works. Kids from my generation, at least, all knew “Peter and the Wolf.” That made me assume the same was similar in Russia. But judging from Oksana’s comments that’s not true at all. It apparently is a more marginal work in Russia. The same can be said of some other works Americans consider true classics. I was knocked out, for example, when I found that Oksana didn’t even know Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” something I even – God forbid! – go around whistling sometimes. Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” too, is not the staple here it is the U.S. In recent years you do see it played more than the usual at Christmas/New Year’s time, but that’s as much to grab the foreigners in town as anything else. But I’ve gone a bit far afield.
Prokofiev (1891-1953) had a fascinating biography. Born in a small Ukrainian village (near the region that is now plunged into war), he became one of the great musicians and composers of his time. Already being a composer of note, he emigrated to the United States in 1918, not long after the Russian Revolution. He lived for four years in the States, spent a short time in the Bavarian Alps, then settled in Paris in 1923. In the late 1920s (1927 and 1929, to be exact), when more and more Russian artists were feeling trapped by the politics of the day, Prokofiev toured the Soviet Union triumphantly. Then in 1936, just as the Great Purges were about to get underway (that happened in 1937), Prokofiev returned to Russia with his family. Between then and his death he left the Soviet Union only twice, in 1936-37 and 1938-39. In 1948, although he had written no small number of politically motivated works glorifying Soviet/Russian power and history, he was named along with several others in an attack on “formalist” art. It was a blow, some say, that he never quite recovered from. He died the same day that Joseph Stalin did – March 5, 1953. And, as all sources say, his death was not mentioned in a single Soviet newspaper.
Today a couple of museums are dedicated to Prokofiev’s memory in Moscow. The one pictured here is at 6 Kamergersky Lane, just across from the Moscow Art Theater. Prokofiev lived here, as is proclaimed on the plaque honoring him, from 1942 to 1953. I don’t know whether he actually moved in physically in 1942, or whether that is when this apartment on one of Moscow’s most prestigious streets was assigned to him. I do know that in the summer of 1941 he was evacuated to the Northern Caucasus as the German army drew closer to Moscow. (For the record, a reader informs me that the entrance to Prokofiev’s apartment was not this door by the plaque, but the next door to the right.)
In any case, this residence proved to be a good place to work. Over the last eleven years of his life Prokofiev wrote many works that are now considered among his best. The opera “War and Peace” is just one of them.
Prokofiev was a good player of chess and he made some nice quotes about the game. “Chess rules are made to be broken”; “Chess is primarily a battle with your own mistakes”; and “Chess for me is a particular world – a world in which plans and passions do battle.”
His story of his entrance exam at the Moscow Conservatory is also worth quoting: “My entrance exam came off rather effectively. Before me a bearded man brought in a romance without accompaniment as his entire baggage of work. I entered, stooped from the weight of two folders holding four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and quite a few pieces for fortepiano. ‘I like this!’ said Rimsky-Korsakov, who was conducting the exam.”
I’ve pulled all of these quotes from the Russian language Wikiquotes site.