He disliked giving solo piano recitals and never resigned himself to doing so except when forced by financial need. “I am bored to death, alone on a platform with a grand piano, and I am certain the audience shares my longing to clear off.” All the same, he was a born pianist, and those who can still remember the powerful sonority of his nervous attack, re-enforced by an inflexible technique and thrustful as swing, know why he was called the Paganini of the Piano. The fundamental bases of his technique were those of the incomparable Lechetizsky. He preferred conducting to playing the piano but, not considering himself a complete master of the baton, he would often remark as he left the foyer for the podium, “Now I must go and be a windmill!” “Don’t move about too much,” his wife would advise him for one last time, but it was vain counsel. After a square bow, his hand on his stomach almost like a Japanese, Serge Sergeevitch, cold at first, used to warm up, to vibrate, to gesticulate with his whole being and – oh miracle – little by little the orchestra warmed up, rang out, let itself go – but without disorder. “You put us under a spell, Maître.” “It isn’t hard. What do they want, these orchestral players? They want you to give them the first tempo and after that they manage for themselves, especially in Paris.”
Various western writers on music have suggested that the process of evolution by which Prokofieff’s art moved towards ever increasingly formal constructions was determined by the example of certain European composers, who remained attached, or reverted to, discarded formal ideas. This is not only childish, but wrong.
Prokofieff owes nothing to Europe. His forms are the result of the normal and constant application of a specifically Russian method: the song variation. In Russian music this is only rarely a strictly thematic variation, like ours, but is a melodic one; not amplifying the theme, but consisting of sections largely repeated and more profoundly modified both metrically and decoratively. There are few of Prokofieff’s symphonic works and concertos which one does not find in large measure founded on this style of variation, either explicitly or by inference. The master’s thematic material is always long. Its points of departure are always tunes which to us appear genuinely Slav. One is always aware of the ‘phrase’ – a psychological document, with a sentimental flavour, and distantly reminiscent of folklore. The old, popular inspiration – its practice, its favourite intervals, its inflexions, its rhythmic cadences, they are always there, either actual or suggested. In these melodies themselves Russianism and its ways of expressing itself must be apparent to those familiar with something altogether fascinating and apart – the Russian romantic music which, for half the 19th century was the fruit of the kind of love match that was made under the Czarina Elizabeth between Italian melody and Slav irredentism.
Prokofieff owes nothing to Europe. On the contrary, he was one of the forces resisting the onslaught of systematized music. If we are still at all fresh in heart, if we still listen to, and are disposed in this age to re-establish the voice of the Muse Euterpe, it is to Prokofieff, among others, rather than to Stravinsky, the gifted scholiast of the past twenty years, that we owe it. Every time one of Serge Prokofieff’s works was given, or is given today, all the com-posers were, and are, in the hall. One has got to have delved into the private libraries of our musicians to know how many important works of Prokofieff they contain. They have sought from him the secret of real melody, and the rhythms of a strong race of peasants and soldiers; they have consecrated him as successor of The Five; by studying these melodies they have enriched their acquaintance with the stylo-recitativo of which Monteverdi, Mussorgsky and Debussy alone have succeeded in conveying the arresting message.
Despite the formal perfection of some of his works, a perfection that is the consequence of a synthesis of Russian and classical architectonic ideas, Prokofieff is a wholly Russian musician. And that covers everything that we understand by the phrase – not merely what is picturesque, but what is human, genuine, instructive and directly assimilable by our old humanist and Christian culture. This being so, he could not stay with us for long. There has been much spec-ulation as to the real reason for his return to the Soviet Union, and political passions have been responsible for a lot of stupid whispering among the ill--informed. It is too often forgotten that in leaving his native land he did not sever all ties with it. Some people have been reluctant to remember that he was back there in January 1927 and that for several months he was treated as he deserved to be – that is, as a great Russian master of contemporary music. Impartial observers, for their part, think that this artist – whom Europe and America admittedly recognized and honoured, but argued about, and did not support with excessive generosity – was drawn back to Russia for perfectly understandable reasons of self interest.
The truth is quite different. For me it has an inestimable value, and to know it will be a satisfaction to all those readers who have preserved their integrity and objectivity. For do we not long, naïvely sometimes, and despite our experience of mankind, to find an artist who is also one of the pure in spirit?
One morning during the month of June, 1933, I went to see Prokofieff. It was a beautiful morning. I was shown into the sitting room, where I found him on a sofa, with a score on his knees, that of the Chant Symphonique. He seemed withdrawn and tired.
“Have you read the notices?” he asked (the previous Sunday this work had been given its first performance at the Concerts Pasdeloup, under the excellent direction of Albert Wolf).
“Yes. They’re nothing brilliant. These people do not understand that an artist is under the necessity of developing. They want you to go on doing the Scythian Suite over again, or even Chout, just as they want Stravinsky to go on paraphrasing Les Noces. I hope you aren’t letting yourself be bothered by them. In any case, your music is too lyrical, it has too much humanity to make an impression on people whose only interest is still in intellectual systems.”
He smiled, but at once grew serious again.
“You are a bad critic. Yes, indeed you are, for I believe you prefer musicians to music. I owe you the truth, and I shall tell it you today. Why today? Because these articles have forced me to recognize a truth which has been worrying me obscurely for a long time. I say ‘truth’ but I really ought to say ‘truth for me.’ It is this. Foreign air does not suit my inspiration, because I’m Russian, and that is to say the least suited of men to be an exile, to remain myself in a psychological climate that isn’t that of my race. My compatriots and I carry our country about with us. Not all of it, to be sure, but a little bit, just enough for it to be faintly painful at first, then increasingly so, until at last it breaks us down altogether. You can’t altogether understand, because you don’t know my native soil, but look at those compatriots of mine who are living abroad. They are drugged with the air of their country. There’s nothing to be done about it. They’ll never get it out of their systems. I’ve got to go back. I’ve got to live myself back into the atmosphere of my native soil. I’ve got to see real winters again, and Spring that bursts into being from one moment to the next. I’ve got to hear the Russian language echoing in my ears, I’ve got to talk to people who are of my own flesh and blood, so that they can give me back something I lack here – their songs – my songs. Here I’m getting enervated. I risk dying of academism. Yes, my friend: I’m going back.”
He stopped, and I said nothing in reply. When an artist is concerned with the salvation of his soul, to urge on him practical or tactical considerations would be to forfeit the special place to which you have been raised by his friendship.
And so it is through this fundamental streak of purity that the portrait of Prokofieff comes into focus – that grown up child of genius who wanted to lose neither his soul nor his inspiration.
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