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Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography [Paperback]

Harlow Robinson
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 24 2002
The prolific creator of such classic popular works as Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf, and Cinderella, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was one of the most important and influential composers of the twentieth century.

Drawing on unprecedented access to previously unknown or unavailable Russian-language sources, including extensive archival material, Harlow Robinson traces Prokofiev's extraordinary life from the fairy-tale world of Czarist Russia, through his many years abroad in America and Europe, to his perlexing permanent return to Moscow in 1936 under the Soviet Regime. That Prokofiev died on the very day as Josef Stalin, his principal persecutor, was the final irony of his intense and enigmatic career.

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From Publishers Weekly

More detailed and comprehensive, and less politically partisan, than previous biographies, this readable account by a professor of Slavic studies at the State Univ. of New York deals objectively but compassionately with the life and work of a major Russian composer whose career began like a skyrocket but ended sadly. He died in 1953, only hours before the death of his principal persecutor Joseph Stalin. An opinionated, difficult man of genius, the nonpolitical Prokofiev was inevitably caught up in the revolutionary changes that took place in his native land. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1918, to Germany in 1922, married an elegant Spanish soprano, moved on to France and became a sophisticated Parisian. When he returned with his wife and sons to the Soviet Union in 1936, he was almost immediately trapped in a situation from which he could not extricate himself. And although he wrote many works glorifying the regime, he was resented for his international past and connections, his foreign manner and arrogance. As soon as he separated from his wife, she was imprisoned "on suspicion of spying." In 1948 he married a Russian woman with whom he had been living for seven years. Almost until the day he died Prokofiev continued to be productive but was frustrated because his operas failed to win critical and popular acceptance. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This is the best biography in English to date on Prokofiev. Robinson, a professor of Slavic studies with a particular interest in Prokofiev's operas, draws upon previously untranslated Russian documents and letters to provide an unusually rich and detailed view of this enigmatic composer. His is a "warts and all" treatment: though obviously sympathetic to his subject, Robinson candidly exposes Prokofiev's flaws, from his musical capriciousness and opportunism to his unpardonable social tactlessness. Prokofiev traveled widely during much of his career, and his observations on the contemporary music scene make entertaining reading. Throughout, the writing is intended for the lay readercrisp, fast-paced, and unencumbered by technical jargon. Highly recommended. Larry Lipkis, Music Dept., Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, Pa.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading Sept. 22 2002
Format:Paperback
Harlow Robinson's book is excellent; well worth reading. He strikes the right balance between the composer's personal charateristics and the body of his musical creation. The book is rich in detail, yet to-the-point; it is objective, yet reflects the complexity of this sometimes very unpleasant genius. It is perfectly comprehensible for the interested non-expert who has invested a good deal of time listening to Prokofiev's music, and seeing his movies, ballets and operas. As a Russian speaker familiar with every day speech and everyday life in the Soviet Union, I can say that Mr Robinson has a keen understanding of that culture, right down to having a very fine ear for transliterations. The composer is the Beethoven of the twentieth century: the one who has created the musical language which is so much a part of us that we take it for granted. Robinson brings us the man and the mind behind that language.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Too lightweight to be informative! May 13 2002
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I read this book when it first appeared some ten years ago, having already read the older books by Victor Seroff et al.; indeed Robinson's book does somewhat fill a lack in the English literature, but it is extremely superficial and "written-down" (i.e. dumbed-down) for a presumably unsophisticated public. One can write intelligent biographies without being dry and academic (e.g. Viktoria Schweitzer's book on the poet Marina Tsvetaeva); it isn't necessary to write down as much as Robinson does. Thus this book is neither very subtle in its judgments of the music nor very penetrating on P. as an individual. Robinson claims to be "above" the old Cold War partisan positions about Prok's pre-Stalinist vs. Socialist Realist work, but he simply blurs over the problems with banalities, rather than thinking them through. Too chatty and shallow. Disappointing!
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2.0 out of 5 stars Too glib and superficial to be informative! May 13 2002
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I read this book when it first appeared some ten years ago, having read much of the other work on P. (books by Israel Nestyev, Victor Seroff, etc.). Indeed there is a lack of good literature on P. in English. Unfortunately, Robinson's book is sadly written-down and dumbed-down for a sub-TIME-Magazine reading public. It is not necessary to do so to write a good, readable, un-academic biography (compare the superb bio of poet Marina Tsvetaeva by Viktoria Schweitzer). So this book wasted a fine opportunity: its evaluations of both life and works are simplistic. Robinson claims to be "above" the ideological divisions of Cold War Prokofiev scholarship (e.g. pre-Stalinist vs. Socialist Realist Prokofiev), but he does not engage this problem at all, at least not in any thoughtful way, and blurs over it with bland cheery platitudes. Disappointing!
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Format:Paperback
Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography by Harlow Robinson (Professor of Modern Languages and History, Northeastern University) is an exhaustive, detailed, scholarly, and documented account of the life, times, inspiration, and personal history of acclaimed Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). A handful of black-and-white photographs and a brand new foreword and afterword by author Harlow Robinson enhance this reprint of the most thorough Prokofiev biography to be found in the English language to date. A superbly written, insightfully informated, and ighly recommended for anyone with a keen interest in the evolution of individual musical greatness as reflected in the life and work of a seminal European composer, Sergei Prokofiev is a core addition to any Music History supplemental reading lists and academic reference collections.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading Sept. 22 2002
By bruce robertson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Harlow Robinson's book is excellent; well worth reading. He strikes the right balance between the composer's personal charateristics and the body of his musical creation. The book is rich in detail, yet to-the-point; it is objective, yet reflects the complexity of this sometimes very unpleasant genius. It is perfectly comprehensible for the interested non-expert who has invested a good deal of time listening to Prokofiev's music, and seeing his movies, ballets and operas. As a Russian speaker familiar with every day speech and everyday life in the Soviet Union, I can say that Mr Robinson has a keen understanding of that culture, right down to having a very fine ear for transliterations. The composer is the Beethoven of the twentieth century: the one who has created the musical language which is so much a part of us that we take it for granted. Robinson brings us the man and the mind behind that language.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars popular biography that brings rewards April 5 2005
By LuelCanyon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Robinson's is a useful popular biography of Prokofiev that is better researched and better written than any other English language bio of the great composer. Equal measure is given to Prokofiev's time in the West, and to his life after returning to Russia. There's much that's interesting here - a persistent exploration of Prokofiev's quixotic relationship with Diaghilev, generous delving into the composer's personal life, including especially some revealing passages on the almost uncharacteristic affection Prokofiev lavished on his children, and a resonant view of his work habits. Prokofiev's career disappointments were many, some even tragic, and the author doesnt beat around the bush, but the admirable thread of fierce devotion maintained by Prokofiev toward his own unquenchable musical purpose is thoughtfully argued by Robinson throughout the book, indeed it's one its strengths. The author even notes details of some of Prokofiev's foppish Parisian clothing that helped start him off on the wrong foot on his return to Russia. There are a number of subtle moments like that where one can discern the winning hand of a committed biographer. The importance of Prokofiev's canon of works is denied a hearing for the most part, but the book suffers little for that. The useful appendices include a chronology and a catalogue (by genre) of the composer's works, in addition to a healthy bibliography. I recommend this book for anyone just taking up the subject of Prokofiev. Listening again to the seventh Piano Sonata would perhaps serve more succinctly for the already initiated.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mind and Music of Prokofiev May 2 2007
By T. Knowlton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Harlow Robinson spent years in Soviet Russia researching Prokofiev during the height of the Cold War. His research does not just include manuscripts and letters but also involves many personal conversations with those who knew Prokofiev and even with those who persecuted Prokofiev. As a result he navigates his way through Prokofiev's life with that added dimension of relating personally to those events. Robinson's writing is interesting and warm without being too academic or dry. This book seems to be intended for any real fan of Prokofiev. Lastly, this book really strives to explain some of the perplexities of Prokofiev's decisions. In particular, Robinson strives to explain why Prokofiev needed to return to Russia after his extended residence in Paris. This book is well worth the time to read.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best biographies you will ever read Nov. 30 2009
By Steve Wyzard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
While I will always love his 5th & 6th symphonies, the 2nd & 3rd piano concerti, and his piano sonatas, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is not my very favorite composer. There are large swaths of his oeuvre that frankly leave me cold, and while very gifted, the quality of his work was very inconsistent throughout his career. Having read a number of books on Dmitri Shostakovich, and having appreciated Harlow Robinson's liner notes for the Shostakovich quartet cycle on the Essay label, I decided to give this book a chance. I have now "flown" through it twice, and can confidently say this is one of the best-researched, well-written, and downright most-fascinating biographies I have ever read.

Readers looking for a fawning hagiography are advised to look elsewhere. While Robinson focuses on the composer's work (with a special emphasis on the operas), there is no effort to whitewash his self-centeredness and very difficult personality. Stories of Prokofiev's coldness and cruelty are legion. One wonders how he would have fared in today's world with the same talents, but having to continually toe the line of political correctness and "market" himself. Prokofiev, while he mellowed in his later years, simply did not care what other people thought, and was not shy about saying what was on his mind. Paradoxically, he worked all his life to appease those who commissioned works from him, to say nothing of the powers that be in Soviet Russia. Robinson devotes much discussion to the ideological attacks of Stalin and Zhdanov in early 1948, after the composer's health was already in decline. Prokofiev's response, he writes, was "neither a complete apology, nor a statement of indignant rebellion." Obsessed with his music, Prokofiev was apolitical and mostly indifferent to what was going on around him during those historically significant times. Robinson quotes the composer Alfred Schnittke on Prokofiev: "He attempted to overcome the apocalyptic break in 20th century history with the cold composure of an athlete; it was as if he did not hear and did not see the approach of a destructive slaughter unprecendented in history."

This biography is quite a page-turner and moves very quickly without bogging down in technical jargon or historical minutiae. Robinson does an outstanding job in presenting the facts, telling the story, and keeping personal conjecture out. He expects his readers to have a working understanding of the times, eras, and personages involved, and in analyzing Prokofiev's works, he makes fair and accurate observations without descending into self-impressed pedagogy. Originally issued in 1987 and now reissued in 2002, this updated version can truly be described as definitive, an agenda-free treasure among composer biographies. Highly recommended.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A core addition to Music History supplemental reading lists Aug. 9 2002
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography by Harlow Robinson (Professor of Modern Languages and History, Northeastern University) is an exhaustive, detailed, scholarly, and documented account of the life, times, inspiration, and personal history of acclaimed Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). A handful of black-and-white photographs and a brand new foreword and afterword by author Harlow Robinson enhance this reprint of the most thorough Prokofiev biography to be found in the English language to date. A superbly written, insightfully informated, and ighly recommended for anyone with a keen interest in the evolution of individual musical greatness as reflected in the life and work of a seminal European composer, Sergei Prokofiev is a core addition to any Music History supplemental reading lists and academic reference collections.
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