Saturday, March 30, 2013

How to Love an Orange

One of the most interesting and historically important operas of the early 20th century is an opera about a play within a play. The genesis is quite interesting. In 1634 in Naples a pair of fairy tales were published about how a king cured the melancholy of his son by playing a practical joke on a passerby. Unfortunately the passerby turned out to be a dangerous sorceress who revenges herself by making the prince fall in love with three oranges, each containing a princess. The first two die from not being given water and the prince marries the third. This fable was turned into a commedia dell'arte scenario by Carlo Gozzi (1720 - 1806). This in turn was turned into a draft libretto by the Soviet director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874 - 1940). Gozzi's version was a polemic against the vulgarized theater of his day and contains a scene in which critics debate their preferences in drama. Meyerhold turned this scene into the frame for the whole play in which competing teams of "esthetes" are constantly advocating competing versions of how the play should go. They form an onstage audience that distances the actual audience from the play. Whenever the play threatens to become romantic or tragic or comic or lyric, one group or another interferes and bursts the mood.

Prokofiev's opera Love for Three Oranges is one of the easiest to enjoy 20th century operas because it is about having fun with conventions. It is against everything large, pompous and grandiose--against German romanticism especially! I didn't find it easy to run down a good complete version on YouTube that would play without glitches, but here is your best bet. This is part 1 of 13:

This is a complete version but lacks both the staging and subtitles:

Love for Three Oranges was written in 1919 and first performed in 1921. A completely different kind of music by Prokofiev is his Piano Sonata No. 7, the second of his three "War Sonatas" (so-called because they were written during the Second World War). Though forced to write music celebrating Stalin, Prokofiev was in torment because his good friend, the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold that I mentioned above in connection with the opera, was a victim of one of Stalin's purges. In June 1939, just as he was about to start rehearsing a new opera by Prokofiev, Meyerhold was arrested by the secret police. He was shot in February 1940. Soon after, Prokofiev started composing the three "War Sonatas". The second was written in 1942 and premiered in 1943. Here is the first movement with the score:

Even though the title claims this to be in B flat major, the only place you actually feel that might be the case is the last couple of measures where suddenly something like a cadence appears.

I say "something like" because this is not a conventional cadence. Partly set up by the placement on two successive downbeats, which lends it to being heard as a cadence, what we actually have is a vii (not a diminished vii because the E is natural, not flat) in B flat, followed by a tonic. What skews it a bit is the fact that the final chord on the downbeat is in first inversion, with the D in the bass. Up to this point, that is to say, in the previous eight minutes of the movement, it is more atonal than tonal! Here is the opening theme of the first movement:

You can see a bi-tonality here, both successive and simultaneous. The C major feel of the first half of the first measure is contradicted in the second half of the measure as the B flat and D flat cancel out the B and D. This pattern continues in the second measure. In the third and fourth measures the B flat wins out, but when this is tied over into the next two measures, the accompaniment again contradicts it with B natural. Measure seven returns to B flat and measure eight to B natural and the phrase ends on the B flat. So what we have is alternation and superimposition of C major and B flat major/minor (because of the D flat). I wonder if we could speculate to the extent of mapping the tension between these two tonalities (the tempo marking for this movement is allegro inquieto) against the tension between what Prokofiev was forced to do in his public life as a composer--write praises of Stalin--and what he felt in his private life: sorrow at the death of his friend Meyerhold. I normally dislike mixing the biography of a composer with the music, but perhaps in this instance there is a case to be made.

I think I will end this trio of posts on Prokofiev here. There is certainly a lot to Prokofiev. He is undoubtedly a skilled and significant composer. His contributions to the opera and ballet are important and lasting. About his instrumental music I am less won over as, with the exception of the piano concertos, I don't hear the kind of depth in his symphonies and sonatas that I do in a composer like Shostakovich. I hear an often brilliant surface, but don't sense the depths there seem to be in some other composers. I could be missing something, of course, just not hearing some things, but at the moment I don't feel that.

Anyone have any thoughts?


vp said...

Best Prokofiev piece ever (imho, of course:)

Bryan Townsend said...

There are some resemblances to the Bartok bagatelles, but these miniatures are really more charming, aren't they?

Nathan Shirley said...

"Depth" in any art can be a tricky subject.

At quick glance we might say Brahms had more depth than Schumann, or that Handel had more than Vivaldi, or Wagner had more than Tchaikovsky. I would argue the opposite in all these cases.

No one could say a composer like Mahler or Shostakovich lacked depth, it would be ridiculous, especially considering the sheer size and mass of their Symphonies. But true depth needs more than just weight.

I like Mahler a lot, and I like Shostakovich more but only because his rhythms and tonalities are generally more interesting and varied! Otherwise they are actually quite similar in my mind. Both wrote huge impressive works, with gigantic forms, both great composers, but the gems of their music were buried in "depth"... I could almost call it padding, but that might be a bit harsh. What they generally did was water down their music. Bartok often did this too, more so later in his career, but his issue was not quite so simple.

Prokofiev on the other hand doesn't have this surface appearance of great depth. But if you look at many of his short works, you can't help but be struck by their greatness.

It has been said that failed poets write short stories, and that failed short story writers write novels. While this is a gross generalization, I tend to agree. Few would say Tolstoy lacked depth, but I do. Look at his short stories, many are downright bad. His novels have their moments, but overall, massive padding. Compare his short stories to Chekhov's... no comparison.

Prokofiev had a rare gift for melody, even on the level of Tchaikovsky. And just like any great melodist, it is their underlying harmony that makes it all possible, none of the other 20th century composers had such consistency in their harmony.

I wouldn't pay too much attention to his piano sonatas- they are great works, but not his best, and really not very accessible. His symphonies (other than the 1st) aren't very accessible either, but there is much more to them. His 3rd symphony might be my favorite. And his concerti of course are fantastic, I would also recommend the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra-

His music is often flashy, light, humorous and often very strange, but his voice is very distinct and the true depth is amazingly great. Shostakovich would never have admitted it, but Prokofiev is where 80% of his style comes from.

Nathan Shirley said...

And part 1=

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, you have to be careful with words like "depth". That's an interesting list you mention and I think I would agree with you on every pair. I don't think Brahms has more depth than Schumann, though if you looked at his music from a purely theoretical point of view you might say so. Counterpoint and motivic complexity does not necessarily create aesthetic depth, which is the kind of depth I was thinking of. I agree on the other two pairs of composers as well. Pomposity is not the same as depth (as regards Wagner and Tchaikovsky).

As someone who occasionally thinks of himself as an amiable miniaturist, I take your point about padding to heart. Yes, there are times when I feel most definitely that the symphonies of both Mahler and Shostakovich are perhaps too long. Some of the most profound pieces I know are not very long--the Cavatina to Beethoven's quartet op 130, for example.

I agree with you that the most impressive pieces I have heard of Prokofiev are the concertos and I will listen to the clip you paste of the Sinfonia concertante with great interest.

I'm going to have to think about the claim that a lot of Shostakovich's style comes from Prokofiev. It doesn't seem too evident at first glance.