Prokofiev and America

Barbara Nissman and NoŽlle Mann.
(Photo: Richard Stead)

From left to right: Harlow Robinson, Daniel Jaffť and David Nice, and three oranges! (Photo: Richard Stead)

Relying heavily on Prokofiev’s newly published Diary (1907-1933), the other contributors looked at Prokofiev’s professional interaction with other artists during the first years he spent in the West, mostly in United States. When Prokofiev arrived in New York in 1918, he was totally penniless, often ill, and relied heavily on the generosity of a small circle of acquaintances. For the first time in his life, argued Fiona McKnight (Doctoral student at Goldsmiths College), he had to work for a living (mostly performing), which meant he had to take into consideration the conservative taste of American audiences. Prokofiev immediately composed piano works for his own consumption, such as Tales of an Old Grandmother and other brief tuneful pieces as required by the American publisher Schirmer, who immediately showed interest in him. In these works, concluded McKnight, one can find the first hint of the “new simplicity”, which Prokofiev was to adopt in the late 1920s, and develop after his subsequent return to the Soviet Union.
   Introducing two manuscripts recently discovered in Rio de Janeiro (Prokofiev’s orchestrations of The Rose Enslaves the Nightingale by Rimsky-Korsakov and of the second of his own Five Melodies without Words, Op. 35), NoŽlle Mann discussed the composer’s professional relationship with the dedicatee of these works, Brazilian-born soprano Vera Janacopulos. She threw light on the role Janacopulos played in Prokofiev’s early career in America (and on that of other eminent composers such as Stravinsky), suggesting that their interaction was at the root of the composer’s growing interest in, and concentration on, instrumentation and orchestration. Putting music at the heart of this conference, Lina Johnsson of Goldsmiths College, accompanied by NoŽlle Mann, performed in Russian the original song by Rimsky-Korsakov.
   In the afternoon, Harlow Robinson gave the keynote address with an illustrated discussion of the use of Prokofiev’s music by Hollywood film directors.
   Robinson explained that after the 1917 revolution many Russian composers, filmmakers and writers travelled to Los Angeles in an attempt to obtain work in the newly emerging film industry. Between 1920 and 1938, Prokofiev made numerous visits to Los Angeles where he met Gloria Swanson who asked him to write music for one of her films. But even though he met Walt Disney in 1938 and discussed projects with him, Prokofiev never wrote any music specifically for Hollywood. However, since his death, much of his music has been used in Hollywood films. These include the background music to Woody Allen’s Love and Death, the music for the film The Turning Point and the end of the film Anna Karenina. Prokofiev’s music, concluded Robinson, has now taken over from that of Tchaikovsky to symbolise Russianness in the movies. In this way Prokofiev’s place is ensured in the history of the Russian contribution to American culture and cinema.
   Finally Prokofiev’s latest biographer, David Nice, traced the history and background of those organisations and individuals who had helped to provide a platform for Prokofiev’s music in America. These included Cyrus McCormick (of the combine harvester manufacturer family) and Russian conductor Modest Altschuler who, with his Russian Symphony Orchestra, promoted extensively the music of Russian composers, above all that of Skriabin. Nice also covered the composer's relationships with his fellow musicians in New York, above all Rakhmaninov, through further examination of the diaries for 1919-20.
   After the conference, Barbara Nissman’s second appearance consisted of a recital of the works Prokofiev had written on his arrival in America – Tales of an Old Grandmother, Op. 31, a piano arrangement of Buxtehude’s Organ Prelude and Fugue in D minor and Four Pieces Op. 32. Completing her recital with what she felt was perhaps Prokofiev’s deepest piano work, the Sixth Sonata, Nissman kept the audience under her spell, sharing with us her obvious joy in Prokofiev’s music. She rounded off the concert with the iconoclastic Suggestion diabolique and a piano arrangement of the march from The Love for Three Oranges which she felt “should be the theme song of the conference today”. Barbara’s words were taken literally after the recital when Prokofiev’s three Anglo-Saxon biographers – Harlow Robinson, Daniel Jaffť and David Nice – posed for a photo call, each holding an orange on his head!
   Overall, the conference and recital presented a well balanced and interesting mix of informative, entertaining and academic presentations. The day was clearly well received and enjoyed by those present and demonstrated the very real enthusiasm that exists for Prokofiev’s music.