Saturday, February 18, 2017

Many Notes and a Note

I'm reading a fairly recent biography of Prokofiev right now, written by Daniel Jaffé for Phaidon. It is safe to say that few composers have had quite as much turmoil to deal with in their life as Prokofiev: The 1905 Russian Revolution, which interrupted his studies at the St. Petersburg conservatory, World War I, the two revolutions in Russia in 1917, the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1922, the Great Purge of Joseph Stalin and, finally, World War II. Whew! Can you imagine trying to arrange a trip from Russia to Italy to meet with Diaghilev to work out the details of a ballet he has just commissioned you to write? In the middle of the First World War?

But even years, like 1913, when wars and revolutions were not tearing the world apart, he had a remarkable amount of upheaval to withstand. For much of his youth, Prokofiev's best friend was Maximillian Schmidthoff, a fellow student at the conservatory and a fellow lover of philosophy, caustic humor and intellectual banter. Quoting from Jaffé, op. cit. pp 33-4:
On 26 April 1913, shortly after his twenty-second birthday, Prokofiev received a note sent by Max from Terioki, outside St Petersburg on the Finnish Gulf: 'Dear Seryozha, I'm writing to tell you the latest news--I have shot myself. Don't get too upset but take it with indifference, for in truth it doesn't deserve anything more than that. Farewell. Max. The reasons are unimportant.'
Schmidthoff had committed suicide. The reason, as given by Jaffé, was that Max, despite or because of his extravagant lifestyle, was penniless. Prokofiev dedicated four pieces to his friend, including the one he was working on at the time of his suicide, the Piano Concerto No. 2.

As a rule, I dislike inserting biography into music or attributing aesthetic characteristics to mere biographical incidents, but I can't listen to the concerto in quite the same way now. The apocalyptic moments, such as at the end of the first movement, seem keener than before. And I am surprised to be reminded that the composer was only twenty-two at time of writing.

Let's listen to the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 16. The original was lost and had to be reconstructed from a piano score in 1923. The pianist is Aleksander Toradze with the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev:

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