Next: Prokofiev on Music

Poem of Ecstasy


Alexander Scriabin exerted a tremendously progressive influence on many Russian composers around the turn of the 20th century. From Scriabin, Prokofiev learned of new harmonic possibilities--including the juxtaposition and combination of supposedly incompatible intervals (fourths and thirds) and modes (major in one hand and minor in the other). Prokofiev went to every rehearsal for the premiere of Scriabin's Third Symphony ("The Divine Poem"), and Scriabin's piano writing exerted a profound influence on Prokofiev's nine completed piano sonatas. Here are the absolutely glorious ending moments of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy: enjoy! WOW!


Piano Concerto No. 3


As one can imagine, Prokofiev did not have too many kind words for the music of Rachmaninov, as Rachmaninov was a thorough romantic who was almost a generation older than Prokofiev. Prokofiev wrote that Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 3 (heard here) was ""dry, difficult, and unappealing."  Rachmaninov was perhaps the greatest pianist of the early 20th century, a fact certainly known by Prokofiev, who also was a stellar pianist (hence the competition, yet again!). In a famous encounter that soured their relationship for years, after Rachmaninov performed Scriabin's extremely difficult Fifth Piano Sonata, Prokofiev came backstage and told him "You know, Sergei Vasilevich, you did play very well after all." Rachmaninov smiled and replied "And did you think, perhaps, that I would play badly?", and turned away to someone else.



Symphony No. 3 


Here is one of my all-time favorite works, and a piece that is rarely heard, given the mammoth size of the orchestra (one of the largest in the history of music) and the length of the symphony: over one and a half hours. Glière studied at the Moscow Conservatory and later became the professor of composition at the institution. Glière played a very large role in the life of Prokofiev, because he was Prokofiev's very first composition teacher. Prokofiev studied with Glière  between the ages of 11 and 13, and it was Glière who really prepared Prokofiev for entrance to the St. Petersburg Conservatory (at age 13!).



Symphony No. 4


Glazunov was the Director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory when Prokofiev attended at the beginning of the century. To Prokofiev, Glazunov was an old-fashioned and uninspiring pedagogue, and they butted heads quite often. As Prokofiev biographer Harlow Robinson puts it, "Pedagogues and Prokofiev rarely got along very well. He refused to become a "nice student" who behaved, performed and composed in a docile way that pleased the teacher." Glazunov famously stormed out of the concert hall 8 measures before the end of the premiere performance of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. That being said, Glazunov was a remarkably adept composer (and child prodigy, like Prokofiev himself) who composed 8 wonderful symphonies. An excerpt from Symphony no. 4 is offered here.






No discussion of Prokofiev would be complete without mentioning Rimsky-Korsakov, one of Prokofiev's main teachers (in orchestration) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Whereas Stravinsky (who also studied with Rimsky-Korsakov) always called Korsakov "Master", Prokofiev could be highly critical of the legendary composer and teacher/pedagogue, stating "even if Rimsky-Korsakov was the most interesting character of all the teachers at the Conservatory, his course was by no means the most interesting. This was because of the way he taught: four hours without a break. It required formidable dedication to concentrate for the entire four hours." Prokofiev had great admiration for the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, and was influenced heavily by the "Master" in terms of brilliant and exotic orchestration.


Manfred Symphony


When Prokofiev's Conservatory teacher asked him who is favorite composers were, Prokofiev answered: "Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Grieg." Tchaikovsky loomed large over all Russian composers of Prokofiev's generation: Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Arensky, Glazunov, etc. Prokofiev especially revered Tchaikovsky melodic gift, as well as the composer's masterful orchestration, particularly with regarding to wind writing. Alas, Tchaikovsky died when Prokofiev was only 2 years old, so Prokofiev never had the chance to meet or know the composer.


The Rite of Spring


Prokofiev had a very complex relationship with Igor Stravinsky, to say the least. Given Prokofiev's highly competitive nature, it is natural that he would struggle for much of his career with comparisons between himself and the older (by 9 years) and internationally acclaimed Stravinsky. As an example, consider this statement by Prokofiev regarding Stravinsky's ground-breaking ballet Petrushka:

"Petrushka is highly entertaining, lively, gay, and witty--but now for the main thing: is there any music in the ballet or not? Yes and no. Unquestionably not a single place in the ballet has really good music." According to biographer Harlow Robinson, "Prokofiev's lack of social diplomacy was one of the factors that complicated the difficult and mercurial relationship between the two composers."




Symphony No. 10 


Shostakovich and Prokofiev: two names inextricably linked together. Shostakovich (born in 1906) was the first major Russian composer to live his entire life and adulthood in the Soviet Union. Composers such as Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev left Russia, with Prokofiev the only one returning for good in 1936. As one can imagine by now, Prokofiev's competitive nature once again made for a difficult relationship at times, as Shostakovich became the leading Soviet symphonic composer from the time of his Symphony no. 5 (1937) until his death. After the premiere of Shostakovich's colossal Fifth Symphony to great acclaim, Prokofiev wrote to Shostakovich: "Could I reproach you for one detail, however? Why is there so much tremolo in the strings? Just like Aida. But that could easily be corrected if your viewpoint coincides with mine." Prokofiev: An impossible person!!!!