Stephen D. Press

Prokofiev’s Ballets for Diaghilev
Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. 294 pp. £55. ISBN: 0 7546 0402 0

Review by Courtenay L. Harter

This new publication is accessible to all students of the arts, be they Prokofiev or ballet enthusiasts. The text is packed with names and many other details; most people associated with the Ballets Russes are mentioned as they cross paths with Prokofiev and Diaghilev. Some particulars may be skimmed over easily in order to read the overarching narrative of the collaboration and influence between these two artists during their 26-year relationship.
     The text is organized into five chapters and an introduction; Chapters Two to Five are further parsed into subsections, though these are not articulated in the table of contents. Glossy prints at the centre of the book contain photographs (some portraitures and some of companies in their costumes), sketches, designs, pages of notes and programmes. There are endnotes following each chapter that can be cross-referenced in the bibliography. Readers should make an effort to peruse these as well; the notes are replete with more anecdotes and details of the discussion in the text, some quite extensive.
      The first ballet Prokofiev wrote for Diaghilev, Ala and Lolli, was never performed as a ballet and is now more commonly known and performed as the Scythian Suite. The remaining three ballets written for the Ballets Russes, while falling out of fashion after their premières, have received some recent attention: Le Pas d’acier, performed by Princeton University in April 2005; and Le Fils prodigue, performed by The Kirov Ballet in July 2005. The scores of the ballets are available from Boosey and Hawkes (www.boosey.com) and various recordings are available (including Michail Jurowski conducting the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne on CPO Records).
     In his “Introduction”, Press puts forth some reasoning behind the lack of attention these ballets have received in past histories, citing other scholars who treated these works in light of the rest of Prokofiev’s oeuvre. Press states that there is an underestimation of these Diaghilev commissions when compared to other works, both western and Russian. While Press notes there are some restrictions of research materials available (pp. 3-4), this study focuses on three interrelated issues: “Diaghilev’s important role in establishing and guiding Prokofiev’s balletic career; the highly personal nature of the composer’s balletic style; and the underlying unity of the ballets from Chout onward” (p. 4). Also included in this section is a short biography of Diaghilev that emphasises his musical background (pp. 4-5).
     “Prokofiev and Diaghilev – The Collaboration” is the first and longest chapter of the text, which combines biographical information, historical contexts, and synopses of two ballets. While the narrative is flush with quotations, Press presents them in a way that makes the reader become a part of the conversations. As a result, one can understand the many perspectives involved in the productions of the ballets, not just those of Prokofiev and Diaghilev. While the reader will follow Prokofiev around the world, through the United States and back to Europe, one never loses sight of the fact that he was constantly working on something related to his relationship with Diaghilev. What make this biography unique are Press’s own translations from the two volumes of diary entries [Prokof’ev, S., Dnevnik 1907-1933, (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), 2 vols.], in addition to the readily available publications of Prokofiev’s writings. The synopses of Chout and Le Pas d’acier act as a transition to the detailed analyses of these ballets in the following chapters. While the juxtaposition of biography, historical context, and plot development in this chapter seems odd, it will not pose a challenge to the casual reader.
     In keeping with the narrative style of the first chapter, Press traces the development from start to finish of Ala and Lolli, Chout, and Le Pas d’acier in the following three chapters. Chapter Two, “The Path to Success: Gauging Originality Versus Influence in Ala i Lolli and Chout”, begins with a short history of the changes in ballet form from the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, revolving around the Stravinsky and Diaghilev collaborations. The chapter includes a detailed discussion of Diaghilev’s influence over all compositional aspects of the works. In Chapter Three, “The Two Versions of Chout and the Suite”, Press asserts that the 1920 version of Chout represents “the source of Prokofiev’s mature ballet style” (p.198). Chapter Four, “Topical Appropriations and a ‘New Simplicity’ in Le Pas d’acier”, focuses on Le Pas d’acier and, through the use of “new simplicity”, its foreshadowing of Prokofiev’s later ballets, Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella (p. 229). In addition, Press discusses Prokofiev’s use of quotation for the first time in his compositions (p. 231).
     In these chapters, Press details the relationships between people, places, and ballets. Embedded within the analysis of the ballets is valuable context. Press not only tells what was happening in the arts, but what was happening in the world in general. For example, Le Pas d’acier is pitted against Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Carpenter’s Skyscrapers. At the same time, Press notes that the opening of Le Pas d’acier was two and a half weeks after Lindbergh’s landing in Paris.
     Chapter Five, “Le Fils prodigue and the End of a Fruitful Collaboration”, continues a discussion of Prokofiev’s “new simplicity” but focuses on Le Fils prodigue. In his analysis, Press makes more comparative statements with regard to the final Diaghilev ballet than he does in the previous chapters. This chapter also summarises the common themes in these works, and how the compositional techniques from these years foreshadow Prokofiev’s later works. Press suggests that the study of these works will provide another perspective into understanding Prokofiev’s complete compositional style (p. 272).
     While the names and places associated with Prokofiev and Diaghilev during this period are extensive, Press provides detailed, yet readable descriptions. He offers musical examples and technical explanations of the ballets but in a manner that makes it accessible to the non-specialist. The musical details are not overly theoretical in nature, as most are thematic ideas from the ballets or visual examples of terminology expressed in the text. Press weaves details from many sources together and adds to the scholarship a masterful depiction of Prokofiev’s adventures in the west, framed by his association with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.


Detailed table of contents

The titles in upper case are those which appear on the book’s page of contents. The others include a page reference.





– Overview of the similarities and dissimilarities between Prokofiev’s and Stravinsky’s early ballets (124)
– A surrogate for Ala i Lolli (128)
– Presentation of folk elements (137)
– Formal procedures (142)
– Harmonic, textural and rhythmic characteristics (153)
– Means and style of characterization in Chout, part one (162)
– Diaghilev’s influence on Prokofiev (169)


– The 1915 manuscript (176)
– The history of Chout’s revisions (177)
– Comparison of the 1915 score with the published score (179)
– Improving the dramatic pacing (181)
– Making the music a collaborative part of the ballet (186)
– A more successful finale (189)
– The entr’actes (195)
– Conclusion (198)
– The Chout Suite (198)


– Le Pas d’acier: collaboration and context (206)
– Prokofiev’s redirection of style (229)


– Diaghilev’s continued guidance (247)
– Prokofiev’s new simplicity versus contemporary trends (252)
– Common themes in Prokofiev’s ballets for Diaghilev (255)
– Continuity of compositional techniques (258)
– Formal and melodic organization (258)
– Tonal organization (261)
– Consistency of characterization (263)
– love themes and seductiveness (264)
– power/fighting (266)
– the grotesque or humorous (267)
– Prokofiev’s ballets for Diaghilev: Coda (270)