Sergey Prokofiev and His World

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Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953), arguably the most popular composer of the twentieth century, led a life of triumph and tragedy. The story of his prodigious childhood in tsarist Russia, maturation in the West, and rise and fall as a Stalinist-era composer is filled with unresolved questions. Sergey Prokofiev and His World probes beneath the surface of his career and contextualizes his contributions to music on both sides of the nascent Cold War divide.

The book contains previously unknown documents from the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow and the Prokofiev Estate in Paris. The literary notebook of the composer's mother, Mariya Grigoryevna, illuminates her involvement in his education and is translated in full, as are ninety-eight letters between the composer and his business partner, Levon Atovmyan. The collection also includes a translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's unperformed stage adaptation of Eugene Onegin, for which Prokofiev composed incidental music in 1936.

The essays in the book range in focus from musical sketches to Kremlin decrees. The contributors explore Prokofiev's time in America; evaluate his working methods in the mid-1930s; document the creation of his score for the film Lieutenant Kizhe; tackle how and why Prokofiev rewrote his 1930 Fourth Symphony in 1947; detail his immortalization by Soviet bureaucrats, composers, and scholars; and examine Prokofiev's interest in Christian Science and the paths it opened for his music.

The contributors are Mark Aranovsky, Kevin Bartig, Elizabeth Bergman, Leon Botstein, Pamela Davidson, Caryl Emerson, Marina Frolova-Walker, Nelly Kravetz, Leonid Maximenkov, Stephen Press, and Peter Schmelz.

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Editorial Reviews

Classical Music
This is a valuable addition to Princeton's series on the background and world of prominent composers. And unlike many multiauthored volumes, this one concentrates on useful information rather than opinion—indeed, the first half is all documents. . . . All fascinating stuff.
— Della Couling
[An] invaluable volume.
— J. Behrens
The Weekly Standard
Sergey Prokofiev and His World looks at the composer's life and music in great detail, shedding new light on the arts in the Soviet Union, in particular, through documents that have become accessible only recently.
Oxford Journals
[This] volume is absolutely indispensable to anyone even casually interested in this field, and all scholars working in Soviet music studies have reason to be grateful to Simon Morrison for his pioneering work.
— Pauline Fairclough
Classical Music - Della Couling
This is a valuable addition to Princeton's series on the background and world of prominent composers. And unlike many multiauthored volumes, this one concentrates on useful information rather than opinion—indeed, the first half is all documents. . . . All fascinating stuff.
Choice - J. Behrens
[An] invaluable volume.
Oxford Journals - Pauline Fairclough
[This] volume is absolutely indispensable to anyone even casually interested in this field, and all scholars working in Soviet music studies have reason to be grateful to Simon Morrison for his pioneering work.
From the Publisher
"This is a valuable addition to Princeton's series on the background and world of prominent composers. And unlike many multiauthored volumes, this one concentrates on useful information rather than opinion—indeed, the first half is all documents. . . . All fascinating stuff."—Della Couling, Classical Music

"Sergey Prokofiev and His World looks at the composer's life and music in great detail, shedding new light on the arts in the Soviet Union, in particular, through documents that have become accessible only recently."The Weekly Standard

"[An] invaluable volume."—J. Behrens, Choice

"[This] volume is absolutely indispensable to anyone even casually interested in this field, and all scholars working in Soviet music studies have reason to be grateful to Simon Morrison for his pioneering work."—Pauline Fairclough, Oxford Journals

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691138954
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/4/2008
  • Series: Bard Music Festival Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 1,145,220
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Morrison is associate professor of music at Princeton University. He is the author of "Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement" and "The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years".

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Read an Excerpt

Sergey Prokofiev and His World
By S. Morrison Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13895-4

Chapter One "Look After Your Son's Talents": The Literary Notebook of Mariya Prokofieva


The same parting words were always addressed to me: "Look after your son's talents." I remember them with gratitude to this very day and always followed them, whenever possible. -Mariya Prokofieva

The Serge Prokofiev Archive in London houses a copy of an unusual item from the Serge Prokofiev Estate in Paris: a small notebook, completed at the end of 1917, filled with miscellaneous entries from various sources, including poems, philosophical aphorisms, and notes on a wide range of subjects frommysticismto astronomy. It is not known exactly how this notebook ended up among Prokofiev's papers in France; he may have packed it in his suitcase when he left Russia in May 1918, or his mother may have brought it to him together with his musical papers and diary of 1917 when she joined him in France in June 1920, arriving with just two suitcases after an arduous journey from Kislovodsk via Constantinople. Whichever route was taken, it is clear that the notebook was of considerable importance to Prokofiev, otherwise it would not have been chosen as one of the few items to betaken out of Russia after the Revolution.

For many years it was assumed that the entries in the notebook were all made by Prokofiev. This view was taken for granted because the notebook had been kept with Prokofiev's personal papers and containsmaterials closely linked with his creative work and pursuits at the time: poems by Zinaida Gippius and Konstantin Balmont that he set to music in 1915 and 1917; excerpts from Edouard Schuré and Schopenhauer, whose works he was reading in 1916 and 1917; and two of his own humorous poems, composed in 1916 and 1917. In the course of recent research, however, it became apparent that only the very last entry in the notebook is in Prokofiev's hand; all the other entries are written in the "beautiful and energetic" handwriting of his mother, Mariya Grigoryevna Prokofieva (1855-1924). This discovery raises several intriguing questions. Why would Prokofiev's mother have recorded in her notebook so many items of relevance to her son's creative work and reading? Was this simply a matter of coincidence, reflecting their shared literary and philosophical interests? Or was she keeping a record of the various poems, aphorisms, and notes on subjects that were of special significance to him? If so, what was the purpose of this record? Was she assisting him, perhaps at his request, by copying out various texts of interest?

Some clarification of these questions can be found in the entries made in the notebook. Before looking at the textual evidence, however, we should first consider the broader context of Mariya Prokofieva's personality and relationship with her son. A fairly consistent picture of her character can be pieced together from her own memoir of her son's formative years, his comments about her in his autobiography and diary, contemporary correspondence and recollections. She was clearly a remarkable woman in her own right. Although she came from a family of peasant origins and modest means, she succeeded in building a different life for herself through a combination of natural talent and sheer determination. As Prokofiev noted with pride in his autobiography, both his parents were the cleverest children in their respective families, with amarriage founded on shared intellectual pursuits and aspirations. Mariya Grigoryevna was an accomplished amateur pianist and a lively conversationalist who always enjoyed good company. When her husband, Sergey Alekseyevich, a trained agronomist, took up his position overseeing their estate at Sontsovka, she became determined (like so many of Chekhov's heroines) not to succumb to the stagnation of provincial life. Her home was full of books; she subscribed to all the latest journals and followed the musical and theatrical life of Moscow and St. Petersburg with interest. Every winter she would journey to the capital for one or two months, leaving her son behind in the care of his father and grandmother. She also made considerable efforts to influence those around her who were less privileged, taking part, for example, in the education of local peasant children.

As the only surviving child of the marriage (two older sisters died in early infancy), Prokofiev naturally became the prime focus of his parents' ambitions. His father gave him lessons in Russian, arithmetic, geography, and history, and later, when he came to visit his son in St. Petersburg, in algebra, geometry, and drawing. Prokofiev did not always find these lessons enjoyable because of "Papa's excessive pedantry." This was certainly not the case with his mother's lessons, which evinced her remarkable pedagogical skills. She taught him languages, first French, then German, and studied the Old and New Testaments with him. Most important, she initiated him into the world of music, shaped his early tastes, and took full responsibility for his initial musical training. As an infant, he responded enthusiastically to her piano playing. When he was a young child of seven, she made sure to keep his music lessons short and fun, never boring him with rote learning. She introduced him to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piano repertoire, encouraged him to develop independent opinions of it, arranged for a grand piano to be brought from St. Petersburg to Sontsovka, and took him on his first visits to the opera in Moscow and St. Petersburg. When he began to compose his own pieces, she either wrote them out for him or enlisted others for the task-his French governess, for example, copied out his first opera The Giant (Velikan, 1900) in calligraphic style. On one occasion, when he tried to destroy a piece that he had given to his mother as a present, she insisted on preserving it. Later, she showed him how to record and organize his work, teaching him the principles of musical notation and the importance of making clean copies of his compositions.

When Prokofiev turned eleven, his mother wisely realized that she needed to enlist professional musicians to develop his precocious talent. In January 1902 she took him to see Sergey Taneyev in Moscow; on his recommendation, she invited Reinhold Glier, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and Taneyev's former pupil, to spend the summers of 1902 and 1903 at Sontsovka teaching her son composition and music theory. In 1904, following a visit to Alexander Glazunov, the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, she enrolled her son as a first-year student. In order to create the best conditions for his education she rented a modest flat in St. Petersburg andmoved in with him, organizing everything tomeet his needs. After Sergey Alekseyevich died in the summer of 1910, Prokofiev confessed in his diary that he did not know whether he had loved his father, since they had very little in common. The opposite was true of his relationship with his mother, which only strengthened after his father's death. According to the memoirs of Mariya Morolyova, an old family friend, his mother's moral authority was so great that her firm and calmly expressed opinions were accepted uncritically; she taught her son through the power of her example how to speak and behave with directness and honesty.

Mariya Prokofieva's awareness of her vital role in nurturing and developing her son's musical talent is clearly articulated in the memoir of his early years that she dictated in 1922. Her account of their relationship is borne out by Glier's perceptive observations. In his memoirs he describes her as a "rare mother" who believed in her son's creative potential and did everything possible to develop his talent in optimal conditions. He comments that her love for her only child and pride in his achievements never turned into blind adulation; she remained keenly aware of her responsibility for his upbringing and rose to the challenges it presented. She succeeded in instilling within him a love for work, creative discipline, and order. Glier also notes that Prokofiev recognized the enormous role that his mother played in his creative development and retained a deep sense of gratitude, love, and loyalty to her teachings throughout his life. This view is confirmed by Prokofiev in his autobiography, begun in the late 1930s, which acknowledges and develops many of the points made in his mother's memoirs.

It is clear from all these sources that Prokofiev's musical career would not have developed as it did without the phenomenal energy and resources that his mother invested in his upbringing. One might well gain the impression from her memoir and Prokofiev's autobiographical writings that her close involvement in his musical life, exceptionally strong during his childhood, receded after he joined the Conservatory. From this point on Prokofiev makes relatively few comments about his mother (most of his references to her are of a factual nature, concerning her travel plans, for example, rather than musical or cultural matters). In many ways this is not surprising; it would have been entirely natural for Prokofiev to gravitate toward his teachers and friends during his years at the Conservatory. After his graduation in 1914, when he was in hismid-twenties and already an independent young man, taking on his first musical engagements and establishing his reputation, one would expect even fewer traces of his mother's influence. Her notebook, however, provides compelling evidence of her continuing close involvement in his literary, philosophical, and musical pursuits. In this respect it is an extremely valuable document, countering the general impression that she no longer actively participated in her son's development at this stage. Throughout this later period she continued to play the role that she had adopted in Prokofiev's early life-the role of copying out his works, preserving them, and keeping a record of his interests. This activity evidently provided her with vicarious self-fulfillment. We know from Prokofiev's autobiography that his mother stopped playing the piano when she saw that her son had overtaken her abilities. In similar fashion it would appear that she preferred to follow in the tracks of his literary and philosophical interests, rather than pursuing her own.

In this way she remained faithful to Taneyev's parting injunction, "Look after your son's talents." She recorded these words in her 1922 memoir, and they assumed special meaning for her son, who quoted them twice in both versions (long and short) of his autobiography: "'The main thing is, look after your son's talents,'-said Sergey Ivanovich, and my mother repeatedly recalled this injunction." Her notebook provides unique evidence of the way in which she continued to follow this advice. It is possible that Prokofiev kept the notebook with him after he left Russia not simply because its contents were useful to him, but also because of its sentimental value as testimony to hismother's involvement in his creative development. In the "Apologetic Introduction" to his long autobiography, he drew attention to the importance of his mother's role in this respect. When he was twelve he observed amusic professor keeping a diary and was so impressed that he started writing his own diary in secret, often while sitting on the toilet. His mother then gave him a thick bound notebook and said to him: "Sergushechka, write in it whatever comes into your head: let nothing be lost." It was evidently this desire to preserve her son's work that motivated her to keep a notebook of her own for recording items of interest to him.

What, then, can this notebook contribute to our understanding of Mariya Prokofieva's interests and their relation to her son's creative work in the period from 1914 to 1917? As one turns its pages, one encounters a fascinating, sometimes bewildering medley of different entries. There are poems, some by Prokofiev and some by other writers, aphorisms by Schopenhauer, reflections about the Germans and the English, notes on obscure religious sects, observations on the movements of the planets, and thoughts on art, beauty, and mysticism. What significance can be ascribed to these jottings? Interpreting this type of material is a tricky enterprise. Anyone who has ever kept a notebook knows how many random things of no lasting import can land in it. It would undoubtedly be a mistake to assume that every item in the notebook is of central significance to Prokofieva's interests or her son's work at the time. Although some entries bear direct relation to his work, others are of uncertain origin or significance. Nevertheless, as a whole, the document represents a fascinating kaleidoscope attesting to a diverse and eclectic range of study. The remaining part of this introductory essay will therefore provide a general summary of its contents, paying particular attention to the entries that are clearly connected to Prokofiev's music. For further information on the sources and publication details of the entries, the reader is referred to the detailed notes accompanying the full transcript of the notebook.

The notebook opens rather unpromisingly with the phrase "Tenir un carnet de dépenses" (Keep a notebook of expenses). This resolution was not kept-apart from the prices of a few French books, the notebook contains no record of payments. However, this opening phrase provides a useful clue to the date when the notebook may have been started. The use of French, together with the fact that people tend to keep notes on expenses while traveling, suggests that Prokofieva began the notebook during her trip to France and Switzerland with her son in the summer of 1913. This hypothesis is supported by the next page, which lists various French books with titles such as Leçons de choses, Livre du maître, Livre de l'élève, Le parfait causeur, together with a note of prices in francs; Prokofievamay have bought, or planned to buy, some of these books to improve her command of the language during her trip. But although the notebook may have been started in 1913, most of the entries date from around 1914 to the end of 1917.

Two photographs have been glued onto the opening pages. The first is of Prokofiev's father, Sergey Alekseyevich, and appears to have been taken not long before his death in 1910, possibly at Sontsovka. The second is of his mother, Mariya Grigoryevna, and looks as if it was taken in France. The photographs may have been stuck into the notebook at a later date, perhaps by Prokofiev after the notebook came into his possession.

The first substantial entry is an extract headed "Chuvstvo bïtiya" (The sense of being), taken from Sergey Rafalovich's collection Zhenskiye pis'ma (Women's letters) published in St. Petersburg in 1906. Rafalovich (1875-1943) was a minor Symbolist poet, prose writer, dramatist, and theater critic who maintained close relations with literary circles in St. Petersburg. Women's Letters is one of his earliest works and comprises fifteen fictive prose letters from a variety of women dealing with the problems and moral dilemmas posed by love. Prokofieva has copied out two sections from the first letter, titled "Tyotya Mar'ya" (Aunt Marya). Both passages deal with the "sense of being," extolled as a supreme value and contrasted with the sinful denial of life. Prokofieva's eye may have been caught by the link between her own name and the fictive Aunt Marya; it is also possible that she associated Aunt Marya's description of her nephew's intense love of life and highly developed "sense of being" with her own son's zest for life.


Excerpted from Sergey Prokofiev and His World by S. Morrison
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments viii
Note on Transliteration, Dates, and Titles xii

"Look After Your Son's Talents": 2
The Literary Notebook of Mariya Prokofieva
The Krzhizhanovsky-Prokofiev Collaboration on Eugene Onegin, 60
1936 (A Lesser-Known Casualty of the Pushkin Death Jubilee)
Prokofiev and Atovmyan: Correspondence, 1933-1952 190
Prokofiev's Immortalization 285

"I Came Too Soon": Prokofiev's Early Career in America 334
Lieutenant Kizhe: New Media, New Means 376
Observations on Prokofiev's Sketchbooks 401
Prokofiev on the Los Angeles Limited 423
Between Two Aesthetics: The Revision of Pilnyak's Mahogany 452
and Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony
After Prokofiev 493
Beyond Death and Evil: Prokofiev's Spirituality
and Christian Science 530
Permissions and Credits 562

Index 563
Notes on the Contributors 578

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