Magazine article Musical Times

Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935

Magazine article Musical Times

Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935

Article excerpt

Soviet survivor LYN HENDERSON Prokofiev: from Russia to the West 1891-1935 David Nice Yale UP (New Haven & London, 2003); xviii, 390pp; L25. ISBN 0 300 09914 2.

What a joy it is to come across a publication that can be wholeheartedly recommended, not just to the Prokofiev enthusiast, but to all those with a broader interest in this absorbing period of the twentieth century. Prokofiev biographies are not thin on the ground, but the present study is unusual in its sheer size and scope. In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, hard evidence in the form of new archival material and manuscripts, together with interviews with some of the people concerned, enable the author to get under the skin of his subject to an unusual extent. A picture emerges of a caring individual, always ready to help friends and relatives in need (financially and otherwise). Add to this Nice's uncanny knack of isolating the significant moment, and at times we feel transported into Prokofiev's very presence.

With its appearance timed to coincide closely with the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death, this first volume of two covers the time from his birth until the artistic retreat of his forthcoming return home after an extended domicile abroad. Running to some 336 pages, it comes complete with an impressive array of goodies that include music examples and eight pages of photographs, as well as lists of recordings and recital programmes of the period, a sizeable bibliography, and even the game-plan of his victorious chess match against future world champion Jose Capablanca!

The book is arranged in two sections, the first of which deals in some detail with Prokofiev's childhood and youth in Russia (1891-1918). Intriguing glimpses are offered of his early years, the only surviving child of an agronomist and a mother with a deep love of music. The family's somewhat isolated situation in the Ukrainian steppes is vividly suggested in its paucity of friendships (Prokofiev's parents knowing well only the local doctor and veterinary surgeon). The important role of Prokofiev's mother is emphasised, both in fostering early signs of musical talent and encouraging the mental discipline of chronicling events in a diary.

Prokofiev's progression, aged thirteen, to the St Petersburg conservatory is placed against the backdrop of looming social upheaval. Among significant events of this early period, Nice identifies his subject's introduction to the Evenings of Contemporary Music early in 1908 (crucial in providing opportunities for performance of his works), the mutually supportive friendship with Myaskovsky and the meeting with Diaghilev in 1914.

Nice offers astute commentary on the succession of early works, showing a keen awareness of the wide range of styles already evident in Prokofiev and noting, for instance, an early symbolist influence in such pieces as the symphonic poem Dreams, while in the Sinfonietta of 1909 he discovers, not only the first instance of neo-classicism in Prokofiev, but 'a work that might be described as the first Russian neo-classical score after Tchaikovsky' (p.63). In a sensitive response to the Second Piano Sonata op. 14, he discovers in the Andante 'a sense of hopeless suffering' that is found here for the first time in Prokofiev's music (p. …

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