And More on Prokofiev'sThree Oranges!

Noëlle MANN

The previous issue of this journal threw light on the forgotten first performance of Love for Three Oranges in the UK. Since then, one subscriber from the USA has provided an entertaining article on the dress rehearsal of the first performance in Chicago, which is re-printed below. New sources from the Archive’s holdings are revealing yet more fascinating insights and in particular, Prokofiev’s own views on his opera. To round this up I selected extracts from newspaper articles and reviews, which throw a vivid light on Prokofiev’s appearance, attitudes and thoughts, at the time he was most involved with this opera.
   As a result of Stephen Press’s article, “Prokofiev’s vexing entry into the USA” (see Three Oranges, No. 6, pp. 22-26), most of us will have formed a mental image of the young and bumptious man who arrived in America in the summer of 1918. This impression is reinforced in some of the many articles that appeared in the American press, based on interviews with the composer over the years 1918-1921. Most articles mention Prokofiev’s unusual and striking appearance but none as perceptively as the (unknown) journalist who dedicated a long article to Prokofiev, then just arrived in America, in the Boston Evening Transcript of 26 October 1918:

“Revolutionary he may be in music, but in actual appearance he is more the country bumpkin with his six feet of stature clothed in ill-fitting garments, ungainly of posture and graceless in walk, with features of the Russian – broad flat nose, large mouth, almost sensual lips. If ever appearance belied the man, it is his.
   Only the eyes would tell of the intelligence that lies behind them, the intelligence, profound and penetrating, that has led the man into untrod fields of art, while only as acquaintance with the man grows and ripens, does there come full appreciation of his extraordinary mental gifts.”

   A few months later, New-Yorker Harriette Brower in Musical America (8 March 1919) was struck by his demeanour as he appeared on the stage:

“A young man steps out briskly from the doorway and marches to the instrument. He evidently believes in the old axiom, which may apply to the concert platform as well as to any other spot or situation in life. That time and tide – the audience – will wait for no man.
   He seats himself quickly and plunges at once into work, without loitering or hesitation. Four Etudes of his own follow one another in quick succession; then a big Sonata, in four parts. The instant the last note is struck he rises abruptly and retires as briskly as he had come.”

   And further:

“Serge Prokofiev has a studio, in a hotel in the heart of the metropolis. Here are his piano, his music, his tools.
   He entered this workroom with the same presto movements that he makes as he walks out on the stage to play a recital. He is quick spoken, too, with a surprising facility in English, considering the short time he has had at his disposal to become familiar with it.”

   And over the years we see Prokofiev evolving from the “country bumpkin” of his 1918 arrival into a more polished but no less enthusiastic man. The Musical Courier of 18 March 1920 finds him enthusing for his own score of Love for Three Oranges:

“He was in a fever of excitement over the opera. It was the big dream of his life, as he told us how funy is the story of the book; how singable the lyrics and how the music had been created.
   ‘I was quite surprised and very happy to be given this chance. I believe in my theories of opera. I don’t believe in arias and concert numbers being injected into the action of the music. It isn’t natural. Why should an individual stop and say “listen to my concert aria”. It’s like putting lengthy and repeated speeches into a play. My opera has no arias. It progresses like the play. You see the cardinal virtue (or vice as you will) of my life has been my search for an original language of my own in music. I loath imitation. I hate ordinary methods. Originality is my goal always. I don’t want to be somebody else in disguise. I want to be myself always.’
   It was at luncheon. Prokofieff is a large blond man with an incisive manner of speech and action. He speaks English very well, and is getting to like our American habits. For instance, he likes the American custom of taking coffee with the food. He is very clean cut, very well dressed, and certainly not exaggerated in his own methods.”

   Prokofiev believed passionately in the newness of his opera but also in the importance of keeping the music simple. On 30 March 1919, he declared to The Morning Telegraph, “The music that I have composed is the simplest of which I am capable, because the libretto is so full of action that elaborate music would be sure to detract rather than to embellish. The action is almost of moving picture swiftness.” And this argument would come back years later as he was trying to secure a performance of the opera in Paris (see further his letter to Jacques Rouché, director of the Paris Opéra).
   Some months later as Love for Three Oranges was finally about to reach the Chicago stage, Ben Hecht (1893-1964), a young journalist who would soon become a famous screenwriter and playwright, captured the opera’s dress rehearsal in a marvellous sketch reproduced below. In 1921 Ben Hecht was writing a daily column for the Chicago Daily News in which he captured moments of the city’s daily life, covering any subject that grabbed his fancy. The rehearsal of Love for Three Oranges was one of these moments. The collection of Hecht’s sketches was published in 1922 under the title of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago [1922. Reprinted by University of Chicago Press in 1992].
The sketch is reproduced from this source, with permission.