Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography Paperback – Jan 24 2002
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About the Author
HARLOW ROBINSON is Professor of Modern Languages and History at Northeastern University. He is the author of The Last Impresario: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Sol Hurok and the editor and translator of Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, also published by Northeastern University Press. He is a contributor to the New York Times, Opera News, Dance Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the Metropolitan Opera-Texaco International Radio Network. He lives in the Boston area.
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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.
Robinson offers many insightful views of Prokofiev: "His music might be filled with 'wrong notes,' but it was resolutely tonal all the same; he might fill sonatas with dissonances and shocking rhythms, but he still called them sonatas and wanted them to be considered as such. He stretched the limits of traditional musical forms with a mischievous glee, much as he tested the patience of his teachers." "This frenetic level of activity seems to have been an attempt to avoid a confrontation with silence or his subconscious; he was never a particularly reflective individual." He also notes that "Unlike so many Russian composers before him, Prokofiev never wrote a single explicitly religious setting---no requiems, vespers, choruses or pieces of the Russian Orthodox liturgy." Considering his works for children, Robinson comments, that "he never forgot what it meant to be a child, and how children think, is evident in the playful but never condescending music he wrote for them."
"Beginning in the fall of 1909, Prokofiev was on his own as a composer: ... this was probably to Prokofiev's advantage, for his professors objected to that which was most original about his music." However, he avoided "movements" or "styles" in music: "he avoided joining any circles or identifying himself with any movements." In 1914, "He was still a bad boy, but a brilliant and assured one."
His relationship with Stravinsky is chronicled in several parts of the book: "Prokofiev's lack of social diplomacy was only one of the factors that complicated the difficult and mercurial relationship between the two composers." "As for Stravinsky, Prokofiev could not--or did not want to---appreciate fully his talent and significance." "Prokofiev and Stravinsky continued to encounter each other socially and professionally, but their fates were diverging. Incomprehensible to Stravinsky was Prokofiev's intense desire to maintain contact with the Soviet musical world; he considered Prokofiev's grasp of politics underdeveloped and sadly naive." Furthermore, "Prokofiev did not regard Shostakovich's music with particular enthusiasm." By way of contrast, "Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev would develop a relationship of mutual respect, if not friendship."
In his autobiography, Prokofiev observed, "Moving to Paris does not mean becoming a Parisian." No matter how long he remained abroad, he always considered himself a Russian. And ultimately in 1935, he moved back to the Soviet Union for good (against his wife's wishes), and Robinson says that "Prokofiev's 'Russian-mindedness'--not money---was the most important motivating force behind his momentous move." He also ultimately left his wife for another woman (without trying to get his first wife out of the USSR first), although they never married.
This is a wonderful biography of Prokofiev, and is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for fans of Prokofiev.
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