Some Reflections on Prokofiev's Music

by Bruce Turlish

Prokofiev was one of the great composers of the 20th century; arguably, he was the greatest. I think the case for Prokofiev's supreme greatness rests upon the likely premise that no other composer of the 20th century enriched the musical repertoire in as many different forms as did Prokofiev, and did so at such a consistently high level of quality and lyrical beauty. Also, his gift for writing original and ingratiating melody was second to none. The criticism has sometimes been made that Prokofiev's music was lacking in emotional depth compared with the music of composers such as Shostakovich or Berg; I do not believe this criticism is valid from a purely musical standpoint. The character or emotional "tone" of a piece of music is not related to its originality; there are many compositions that could be described as philosophic or introspective in nature that are quite shallow in terms of musical substance. The fact that so much of Prokofiev's music has a dynamic and life-affirming character is a reflection, I suspect, of the composer's personality; morbid introspection was foreign to his nature. Further, the point has been made by many that Prokofiev did, in fact, compose works that had this element of "emotional introspection;" the String Quartet No. 1, the Violin Sonata No. 1, the Piano Sonata No. 8 and the Symphony No. 6 immediately come to mind.

Although Prokofiev's greatness is recognized , his reputation as a composer rests upon a relative handful of works. This situation is certainly not unique with Prokofiev, but some of the less frequently played compositions are among his most powerful, and I would like to say something here about some works of his that I think deserve greater attention and more frequent performance.

Symphony No. 2: This symphony is Prokofiev's least known and one of his most inventive. He wanted this work to be a symphony composed in a modernistic vein, a symphony "compounded of iron and steel," as he put it, and he succeeded brilliantly. Cast in two movements, an Allegro ben articulato and a Theme with variations, this symphony is the nearest Prokofiev came to rivaling what Stravinsky achieved in the Rites of Spring. Prokofiev's use of martial, driving rhythm in the first movement is exhilarating, yet a strong melodic line runs through this music also; the overall effect, while somewhat harsh, is extremely exciting. The second movement opens with a theme that is, without question, one of Prokofiev's most inspired and lyrically tender; the variations that follow are imaginative and exciting, the symphony ending with a return of the contemplative variation theme in a manner that is quite poignant. While it is true that certain passages in this symphony have a balletic feel to them, the strength of the melodic invention is so high that the piece remains consistently fascinating. This work has the potential to be much more popular than it currently is with the concert- going public; I suspect a ballet set to this music could be a crowd-pleaser and would allow the music to become better known.

Symphony No. 4: This is Prokofiev's most lyrical symphony and the least known after the second symphony. Prokofiev based this symphony upon musical material contained in his exquisite ballet "The Prodigal Son." Also, this symphony underwent a substantial revision at the composer's hands; it bears the dual opus number 47/112. What is noteworthy about this symphony, aside from the serene beauty of the melodic material, is the sense of restraint and sensitivity that so much of the music possesses. The introduction to the 1st movement has a high-minded, almost Apollonian character, while the main body of the movement contrasts athletic energy and tender lyricism. The second movement contains what is perhaps Prokofiev's most inspired melody; in no other theme of his is his ability to combine simplicity and melodic originality better demonstrated. The third movement, a scherzo, contains music of tender, almost feminine lyricism--with a playful edge. The last movement is gruff, athletic, and lyrical by turns; the finale harks back to the noble music of the first movement's introduction, the symphony ending in a blaze of C major glory. Prokofiev himself had a particular fondness for this symphony, saying that he had always liked it for its "subdued tone and wealth of material." My suspicion is that the subtle nature of this music will always work against its chances of becoming popular, but it stands as a compelling testimonial to Prokofiev's melodic creativity.

Semyon Kotko: This opera, which is based upon a novel entitled "I, Son of the Working People" by Valentin Katayev, is one of the great operas of the 20th century. Sviatoslav Richter, the renowned Soviet pianist, observed that it was this work that first made him realize that Prokofiev was a great composer. Although this opera is set in a Ukrainian village that is invaded by the Germans in 1918 and could be fairly described as a folk-opera, it is in no sense inferior to the more "sophisticated" Prokofiev operas. The melodies that Prokofiev composed for this work sometimes have a folksong-like feel to them (the theme of Semyon's mother and the wedding chorus theme come to mind), but they retain the characteristic originality and poignancy so typical of this composer. Many passages in this opera have a craggy, almost monumental character, and Semyon's opening aria, which culminates in an impassioned reunion with his mother at their small village hut, makes one understand why Prokofiev's fellow Soviet composer , Miaskovsky, used the term "stupendous" in describing this opera. Although acquiring the complete opera might be difficult (there was at one time a recording of this opera on the Russian MK label), Prokofiev did create a concert suite which gives some indication of the melodic power of the opera and is more readily obtainable.

Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution: This work, a large-scale composition for massive choral-symphonic forces, is a masterpiece. Being an attempt to extol the virtues of Communism while using the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin as it does, it would be an easy thing to dismiss this work as being just Soviet propaganda or "second-rate" Prokofiev--nothing could be further from the truth. Although this work does glorify Communism, it does so with a plethora of original melody as only Prokofiev could have written it, so that it is hard not to be carried away by the strength and conviction that this music so obviously possesses. The music, in my opinion, sounds like a sincere attempt on Prokofiev's part to depict Communism as being something noble and humane; I do not detect in this music any hints of a veiled cynicism or bitterness. Like all great creative artists, Prokofiev was able to transmute a prosaic, even harsh reality into something lyrical and inspired-sounding. The opening section, the first of ten, entitled "A specter is haunting Europe--the specter of Communism," has to be one of the most electrifying openings amongst Prokofiev's output--the music has an immediate impact with its pounding bass and strident trumpet outbursts. There is an almost ecstatic lyricism in this score as well, as in the sections "Philosophers" and "Victory." In the section entitled "Symphony," Prokofiev produced an orchestral scherzo replete with dynamic energy and drive. It is ironic that this great work , representing Prokofiev's genius at its most fertile, should be criticized as it has been from both ends of the ideological spectrum-- both pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet commentators have found fault with it. What is most important about this work is the quality of the music itself, and that level of quality is nothing less than Prokofiev at his very best.

On Guard for Peace: This oratorio, based upon a text glorifying the ideal of peace in the world, is another example of first-rate Prokofiev. Again, the music sounds sincere, as if Prokofiev did genuinely believe in the ideals embodied in the work. In musical terms, this work is rich in melodic invention and compositional skill. Prokofiev's use of a children's chorus and boy soprano lends a great charm and poignancy , as in the sections "To Those Who are Ten Years Old, " "A Lesson in the Mother Tongue, " and "Dove of Peace." The writing for adult chorus is extremely powerful, surpassing even "Alexander Nevsky" in terms of vigor and fertility of invention, especially in the sections "Stalingrad, City of Glory " and "May Indestructible Peace be the Heroes' Reward." There is one section for narrator alone, "A Talk on the Air," which can be tedious to listen to if one does not understand Russian, but this is the only real flaw in an otherwise splendid piece of music. It is possible that some listeners may be offended by the cheerful, perhaps fulsomely joyful tone of this work's concluding sections, but I think Prokofiev can be forgiven for going overboard in this respect, given the positive intentions that the composition so obviously has. This work definitely deserves to be better known; be advised, however, that like much of Prokofiev's output, it requires repeated hearings in order to gain a full appreciation of it.

Le Pas d'acier Suite: This ballet suite, derived from the ballet of the same name, deserves to be much more popular than it currently is. It was Prokofiev's attempt to write a ballet glorifying the advent of industrialization in Soviet Russia of the 1920's, and Prokofiev produced a score which contains much original melody and orchestral vitality. The first movement, "Entrance of the Players," begins with a broad, folksong-like melody in the strings followed by a vigorous orchestral march; what impresses one most about this music, aside from its energy, is Prokofiev's ability to produce a distinguished melodic line from such simple diatonic materials. In the concluding movement of the suite, "The Factory," Prokofiev paints an orchestral portrait of factory machines going full-bore in a manner which can very easily set a listener's pulse to racing. The concluding pages of this movement have a melodic strength and conviction which is exhilarating; Prokofiev achieves something almost unique in these final moments, the phrase "white-hot intensity" can easily come to mind in attempting to describe this music.


At the beginning of this article, I asserted that Prokofiev was arguably the finest composer of the 20th century; that claim does not strike me as extravagant, even given the fact that such musical giants as Stravinsky, Hindemith, Shostakovich et al also lived and worked during Prokofiev's era. What it all boils down to, in my opinion, is Prokofiev's melodic gift; what other composer can truly be compared to him in this regard? Certainly, some other 20th century composers did have substantial melodic gifts: Arnold Bax, Walter Piston, William Walton, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams all come to mind. Did any actually match Prokofiev's ability to write the kind of poignant, lyrical and exalted tunes with which he so consistently filled his compositions? For me the answer is an unqualified no. Another factor which I feel must be mentioned in making a case for Prokofiev's greatness has to be the sheer "enjoyability" of his music; what other composer could have achieved what Prokofiev did in what is possibly his masterpiece, the opera "The Fiery Angel."? In the hands of some other 20th century composers, this opera could easily have become something morbid-sounding or psychologically abstruse. What Prokofiev gave us was a rousing opera filled with full-blooded, largely diatonic melodic invention which almost takes the breath away as the powerful vein of melody drives the opera's plot along to its cataclysmic finish; surely no other composer but Prokofiev could have achieved this almost superhuman feat, while giving an intelligent and sensitive audience its money's worth in terms of entertainment. Could a Stravinsky or Shostakovich have matched what Prokofiev achieved in this opera? Perhaps any answer must ultimately be just an intuitive one, but again, I say no. If any other composer can be said to have approached Prokofiev's achievement, I would say Paul Hindemith would be the one. Hindemith had Prokofiev's diversity and fluency of output, and also had a pronounced melodic gift. Where Hindemith falls short vis-a- vis Prokofiev is consistency of quality--a few of Hindemith's pieces are rather thin melodically, the Concerto for Trumpet, Bassoon and Strings being, in my opinion, a case in point. Also, Hindemith's melodic language was very chromatic compared to Prokofiev's, which gave some of his music a certain cerebral and synthetic character which audiences could not appreciate as well as Prokofiev's usually diatonic vein of melody. In masterpieces such as the opera "Cardillac" and the ballet "Nobilissima Visione," Hindemith was able to transcend this handicap.

In any evaluation of Prokofiev's achievement, a comparison with Shostakovich is inevitable. In fairness to Shostakovich, it has to be said that he was the greater symphonist; Prokofiev valued lyrical creation over the kind of rigorous organic thinking that the symphony, in its purest form, ultimately demands. When one considers Shostakovich's achievement in terms of opera and ballet relative to Prokofiev, I believe Prokofiev emerges as the much more significant figure. I think it is reasonable also to contend that Prokofiev was markedly more consistent in terms of musical quality and maintained a higher level of original melodic invention than did Shostakovich. If it appears that Shostakovich is currently generating more discussion and commentary than Prokofiev, it would be wise to keep in mind that this does not necessarily mean that Shostakovich is the greater composer. Aside from the fact that Shostakovich died much more recently than Prokofiev, I think it is reasonable to infer that the musical public has a somewhat "romanticized" perception of Shostakovich as the long-suffering Soviet artist who was persecuted by authority, but managed to fight back by weaving hidden meanings into his music. Prokofiev, on the other hand, enjoys no such "romanticized" reputation; although Prokofiev was victimized by Soviet authority as well, I suspect the musical public tends to view Prokofiev as having merely a "business-like" attitude towards the creation of his own music and also of being largely indifferent to political and social concerns--a view that might not be inaccurate, but would tend to make Prokofiev a somewhat less attractive and sympathetic figure for musical discussion and analysis. Again, we must look to the music itself to make any judgments about a composer's significance, and not be overly concerned about extramusical issues related to "hidden meanings" or "philosophic undercurrents." Further, the fact that the music of Shostakovich can be characterized as generally having a more serious tone than the music of Prokofiev does not mean that Shostakovich is more significant as a composer, only that, for whatever reason, he chose to imbue his music with this darker and more introspective element. Prokofiev, with his love of fantastic imagery and larger-than-life action was drawn to writing music that reflected those interests; he was quite capable of writing in a more introspective vein when he chose to.

In closing, I must say that no other composer's music has given me as much pleasure as the music of Prokofiev. Even though I am conscious of the achievements of many other composers of the 20th century, including those who excelled in terms of lyrical creation (the composer Arnold Bax stands out in this regard; interestingly, Prokofiev wrote an early orchestral work entitled "Autumnal" which is very reminiscent of Bax's style), none has impressed me as having the musical stature and creative genius of Prokofiev. I realize these sorts of judgments are ultimately subjective in nature, but for me, when the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger observed after learning of Prokofiev's death that he would "remain for us the greatest figure of contemporary music," he was saying something that I personally have been convinced of for a very long time. Prokofiev was the best.

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