April 23, 2012. Sergei Prokofiev was born on this day in 1891. He belonged to a "post-Tchaikovsky" generation of Russian greats, together with the somewhat older Rachmaninov, who was born in 1873, and Stravinsky, born in 1882. All three became accomplished composers before the Revolution of 1917 and all three left Russia after it happened. But unlike Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, both of whom were quite anti-Soviet in their views, Prokofiev, after almost 20 years living in Europe, decided to return to the Soviet Union. It was never clear why he made this decision. He knew about the lack of artistic and political freedoms in the Soviet Union, and he had heard of the purges. Still, he returned. Part of the reason, it seems, was that his career in the West didn’t develop as well as he expected. Ambitious, brilliant, talented, he expected to become a great success when he first moved to the US. As successful as he was, however, the American public clearly preferred another émigré from Russia, the more conservative Rachmaninov. On a number of occasions, Prokofiev was overheard saying, "There is no room for me here while Rachmaninov is alive, and he will live another ten or fifteen years."
In 1920 he moved to Paris, but there he found himself competing with Stravinsky. For a Russian composer in Paris, the patronage of Sergei Dyagilev was very important. In the 1920s, Prokofiev wrote several ballets, but only The Prodigal Son became really successful. Stravinsky, on the other hand, already famous for his Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, had several hits with Pulcinella, the new version of Les noces, Apollo, and The Fairy’s Kiss. Still, if one considers Prokofiev’s output from 1918 through 1936, this period was extremely productive: he wrote several operas, among them The Love for Three Oranges and the updated version of The Gambler, three symphonies, Romeo and Juliet (ballet and the orchestral suite), the Third, Forth and Fifth piano concertos and also concertos for violin and cello, and many other works. Never quite a part of the Russian émigré community, sometime in the mid-20s Prokofiev began developing contacts with the Soviet musicians. For propaganda reasons, the Soviets were very keen on having him return. In 1927 Prokofiev accepted an invitation to tour the Soviet Union. His opera The Love for Three Orange was staged in the Mariinsky Theater; Mayakovsky and Meyerhold were also wooing him back. In1932 he started spending half of his time in Moscow, and by 1936 he had settled there permanently. As a person famous in Europe and America, he expected immunity from the oppressive Soviet state, and at the beginning it seemed to work that way: he was given a large apartment, a car with a driver, and was promised the unheard of privilege of unrestricted travel to the West. Unfortunately, these freedoms didn’t last. Almost immediately, the musical censors went to work, criticizing some of his music as not sufficiently "Social Realist," and by 1948 he, as well as Shostakovich and some other composers, were officially denounced as “formalists”; his works, written during the emigration, were banned and he lived his remaining years in virtual seclusion. He died on March 5, 1953, the same day as Stalin.
We’ll hear two pieces composed by Prokofiev while he lived abroad: Five Melodies for violin and piano, Op. 35 bis (1920), performed by Ilya Kaler, violin and Eteri Andjaparidze, piano (here), and Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 (completed in 1921). Jeffrey Biegel on the piano, with South Shore Symphony Orchestra (here).
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