Serge Prokofiev, Chicago 1933.

Prokofiev and America

NoŽlle MANN and Tom SUTCLIFFE (Goldsmiths College)

On Saturday 8 May 2004, the Institute of United States Studies (IUSS) and the Serge Prokofiev Archive, both of the University of London, joined forces to explore Prokofiev’s times in America in a conference which took place at Senate House, University of London. Now Head of Music at IUSS, Peter Dickinson was instrumental in setting up the Serge Prokofiev Archive in 1994, when he was then Head of the Music Department at Goldsmiths. It was therefore befitting that he should dedicate the last of the popular Institute’s regular music study days to Prokofiev. As he explained in his introduction, the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) and the IUSS were about to merge and form the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA) as from 1 August 2004.
  All contributors were from London, with the exception of the two guest speakers from America, both established specialists of Prokofiev’s life and music – biographer Harlow Robinson (Professor of Modern Languages and History at Northeastern University, Boston), and pianist Barbara Nissman who made history in 1989 by being the first pianist to perform the complete Prokofiev piano sonatas in a series of three recitals first in New York, then in London.
   Three contrasting contributions, given by Arnold Whittall, Barbara Nissman and Alastair Macauley, stood out in this conference. The first was a theoretical paper, in which Arnold Whittall, Professor Emeritus of Music Theory and Analysis at King’s College London, shed light on the “challenge which Prokofiev’s music poses to music theory and analysis” and provided a fascinating comment on “interpretations of Prokofiev by a handful of American writers”. In the process, Whittall discussed and contrasted hermeneutic and technical approaches to analysis and expressed the view that these were “not incompatible” when looking at Prokofiev’s music. Starting with Felix Salzer’s first steps in applying Schenkerian analysis to Prokofiev, Whittall commented on the approaches of Richard Bass, Lawrence Kramer and Neil Minturn who have explored the structural and stylistic features of Prokofiev’s compositions, and discussed the use of modality and the octatonic scale in Prokofiev’s music. Putting in question Taruskin’s view of Prokofiev as the “accessible composer”, as opposed to the “modernist” Stravinsky, he commented positively on the work of a young theorist, Daniel Zimmerman, who has declared Prokofiev's music “impervious to any single analytical approach”. Having introduced us to the concept of the “wrong note” theory and the ambiguities which Prokofiev’s music contains, Whittall concluded that in Prokofiev’s case “wrong notes are right”.
   Barbara Nissman reflected on two of the Twentieth-Century pianist-composers she knows best, Gershwin and Prokofiev. Constantly moving between the floor and the piano, she commented and highlighted specific aspects of Prokofiev’s music which she (in a “leap of faith”) recognises in many of Gershwin’s works. A very compelling example was what she called her “musical joke” – the celebrated opening slide of the Rhapsody in Blue happens to be a near-repeat of the trill and rising scale with which the piano enters in the second movement of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (written earlier); an argument all the more convincing as we discovered that the score of Prokofiev’s concerto accompanied Gershwin in all his travels. But, having noted similarities between the two men, such as an innate sense of melody and rhythm, Nissman did not attempt to make a blanket statement or state a theory on who influenced whom. She gave what she called “a performer’s point of view”, enriched by “the performer’s leap of faith”, on two “natural” pianists. Her talk demonstrated a deep and expert understanding of Prokofiev’s music and structures (she has performed all of Prokofiev’s piano music, and is now at work on her next book, Prokofiev and the Piano: A Performer’s View). Indeed her comments on Prokofiev’s complex and often unexpected language concurred more than once with Arnold Whittall’s views: the performer and the analyst were united.
   The third paper (or rather, performance), which I [NM] selected for this review was delivered by Alastair Macaulay (chief theatre critic of The Financial Times and dance critic of The Times Literary Supplement), who started by declaring himself “a fraud amongst this academic crowd” and promptly enthralled the audience with his wide knowledge of dance and in particular of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. This original choreography has acceded to fame since the 1950s when Balanchine revived it with the New York Ballet. Macaulay illustrated his talk with a solo demonstration of many of the dance sequences in the ballet, most amazingly the Siren’s pas de deux with the prodigal son. He made the audience acutely aware of the vital role the relationship composer/choreographer (that of Balanchine and Prokofiev was stormy) plays in the shaping of the work and, as a result, of its success. This was all the more significant for the Ballets Russes, whose innovative approach rested, according to Diaghilev, on a tight collaboration between all the artists involved in the making of a ballet – composer, choreographer and painter.




Arnold Whittall:
Prokofiev in Theory: American Lines and Angles.
Barbara Nissman:
Gershwin meets Prokofiev: Prokofiev meets Gershwin.
Fiona McKnight:
Towards a new Simplicity in America.
Harlow Robinson:
Prokofiev and Hollywood.
NoŽlle Mann:
Prokofiev, Diva and the Nightingale.
Alastair Macaulay:
Balanchine’s Prodigal Son in America.
David Nice:
Prokofiev’s Music in the Context of American Concert Life.

John Coffin Memorial Recital
by Barbara Nissman:

Tales of an Old Grandmother, Op. 31;
Arrangement of Buxtehude’s Organ Prelude and Fugue in D minor;
Four Pieces, Op. 32;
Sonata No. 6, Op. 82.