MO Who is the best conductor in Russia at the moment?
SP In the first place, Koussevitzky. Siloti is very famous, though.
MO I heard Siloti as a pianist in London.
SP He studied with Liszt. But he’s mainly conducting now, as he is too old to be a good pianist. As a conductor he is not in the front rank, but he is successful because he is excellent as a concert organiser. Then, there is Albert Coates, an Englishman, who is an excellent conductor.
MO Who are your favourites among Russian composers?
SP I like Skriabin. Also Stravinsky and Miaskovsky.
MO Is Skriabin’s music well received in Russia?
SP Yes, recently people have begun to appreciate it more.
MO Really? I listened to some of his music when I was in London, and found it very difficult. I heard his Prometheus.
SP Prometheus? Very good. I too was in London in June 1914; perhaps we were there together.
MO Which is your favourite Skriabin sonata? I have not yet heard the Tenth, but I heard Skriabin himself play the Ninth.
SP I am not very keen on the Ninth. I like the Fifth and the Sixth. And although it is short, the Tenth is very fine.
MO It is very sad that Skriabin has died. In the last two or three years we have lost many great figures.
SP Yes, Max Reger, also Debussy, whom I prefer to Reger or Strauss. I also consider Granados a great loss.
MO I agree. But the greatest loss must be Debussy.
SP Certainly. I have never met Ravel, but Debussy I did meet.
MO When was that?
SP Just before the war. He came to Petrograd to conduct a concert in the Koussevitzky concert series, including La Mer and Nocturnes.
I should have liked to continue our conversation about Debussy, but just at that moment we were interrupted by a group of maikos [young women training to be geishas] coming into the room. Drawing attention to their beautiful kimonos, I said:
MO Do you like the kimonos? Aren’t they beautiful?
SP They are indeed.
MO When did you arrive in Japan?
SP I came to Tokyo on 1 June, and I have also spent ten days or so in Kyoto and Nara.
MO They are both lovely places, are they not?
SP Yes, beautiful and peaceful. While I was in Nara I began work on a violin sonata. But as there are so many interesting things to see here in Japan I have not been very productive; I find it hard to concentrate.
MO I do hope you will write a piece based on your impressions of Japan – something like Charpentier’s Impressions d’Italie. That would be most interesting.
SP Ha, ha! That’s a good idea. But while waiting to go to the United States I am anticipating the pleasure of composing music inspired by my impressions of crossing the Pacific.
MO A “Pacific Ocean Suite”! Probably including “Sunrise”, or “Sunset”, or perhaps even a “Storm at Sea”. That would be most up your street, wouldn’t it?
SP Oh, I don’t think so. In any case, I am looking forward to the voyage to America because it will take about twenty days. I have never been on such a long voyage.
MO How long are you planning to stay in the States?
SP Well, at present I am thinking of one or two months, but we shall have to wait and see. I’m going to be an ordinary tourist, visiting places like Niagara and great cities like New York. Speaking of America, one of the magazines there used the phrase “futurist-composer” about me. I don’t agree with this description. Nevertheless, I believe it to be the case that the Russian Futurists are more advanced than their American counterparts.
MO Do you know any American composers?
SP No, I don’t. Except that I do know Kurt Schindler, who was once in Petrograd. He knows a great deal about Russian music.
MO I am familiar with some of his songs. I hear they are quite widely performed.
SP Yes. He presented me with some of them, and in return I gave him some of mine.
While we were thus absorbed in conversation, some food was brought in. Prokofiev looked in surprise at the little cups full of liquid, and I explained that it was Japanese sake. When we toasted one another, he said: “This is very strong stuff!” So beer was substituted, but he still did not drink much. Dealing clumsily with the chopsticks, he again turned to me to resume the conversation. Eager to know more about the situation with music in Russia, I steered the conversation back in that direction.
MO You studied with Tcherepnin, did you not?
SP Yes. He does not have great imaginative powers, but he is a good composer, particularly in the field of orchestration.
MO Is Cui still alive?
SP No, sadly he has died. We used to call him “The Old General” – because he really was a celebrated general in the army. He hated my compositions, though.
MO Yes, I remember. I suppose Glazunov is also one of the old guard?
SP Yes, and he detests my music too! When my Scythian Suite was being performed, he came to the concert but walked out in the middle. Ha, ha!
MO And Liadov? Does he also reject your music?
SP He was one of my teachers, but behaves as if I were an enemy.
MO What about Rakhmaninov?
SP I believe he is now in Sweden. He is a very sensitive person, and the war affected him badly. I have heard that he plans to go to the United States to conduct.
MO His own compositions?
SP Quite possibly. I’m sure he will also appear as a pianist.
MO He is a superb pianist, isn’t he? I heard him in London and was deeply impressed. He seems to have enormous physical strength.
SP Yes. He must be the number one pianist in Russia just now. Even though there are mixed feelings about his music, some liking it and some not, there is general agreement that he is the greatest of our pianists. He particularly excels in his own First Piano Concerto. Here I am in Japan, having come from Siberia, and there he is in Sweden, taking the northern route to the United States. It would be amusing if we were to meet and shake hands there.
MO What about Vasilenko and Akimenko?
SP I suppose they are in Petrograd. They are composers of the second or third rank, though.
MO Is that so? I thought Vasilenko was rather important.
SP Medtner is far superior.
MO Medtner is strongly influenced by German music, isn’t he?
SP Yes, but nevertheless he is a good composer. Even so, I prefer Miaskovsky to Medtner.
MO I have never heard any of his music. I find it very difficult to get hold of, since not much of it is published. To tell you the truth, it was in the same book by Montagu-Nathan, where I came across his name, that I first read something about you. This book says that Miaskovsky’s sonatas are very complicated.
SP Really? It is true that his sonatas are difficult to appreciate. He was badly injured in the war, but on his return managed to complete no less than five symphonies.
MO Five?! Good heavens! How would you describe his music?
SP To put it bluntly, “dark”. His temperament is so reserved that he is inclined to keep his compositions in the desk drawer, no matter how excellent they are. This explains why so few of them are published.
MO Where is Stravinsky at present?
SP I don’t know. Because he spends so much of his time in France and Switzerland, he is not so well-known in Russia. I saw him about four years ago in Milan – he had been invited there by Marinetti, the Futurist leader.
MO I love Stravinsky’s music very much. If Skriabin was a genius, there is no question that after him comes Stravinsky.
SP You are right, he is a genius, with an extraordinary gift for orchestration. To be honest, he may not be profoundly imaginative, but his music is vivid and picturesque.
MO Have you heard Les Noces?
SP Ah, his latest composition. He played some of it for me in Milan, but I have not heard it since. You saw his Rossignol in London, didn’t you?
MO Yes, it made a tremendous impact.
SP I’m not so impressed by Le Rossignol. I much prefer Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
MO Certainly, Petrushka is a wonderful work. I have been told that it contains a variety of folk melodies.
SP Not just folk melodies, but some really vulgar street tunes that offended quite a lot of people.
MO Do you mean like this one?
And I sang a snatch of the “Nurses’ Dance”. Prokofiev immediately joined in whistling, nodding and smiling. He continued:
SP Petrushka is one thing, but The Rite of Spring is not so easy to understand. The first time I heard it, I found it baffling. It was only when I met the composer in Milan and we played the work through together in a piano duet version that I understood what it was about, especially that extraordinary waltz. In any event, it is a great work.
MO Do you compose music for the ballet yourself?
SP I have done. The Scythian Suite began life in this way. It was originally a commission from Diaghilev: a tragic ballet based on the primitive story of the Scythians, a people who lived in Russia before the Slavs. The title of the ballet, Ala and Lolli, derives from the names of the hero and heroine. But while I was in the process of composition it became clear to me that it would be more suitable as symphonic music than as a ballet, so eventually I turned it into a symphonic suite.
MO What happened to the ballet Diaghilev commissioned?
SP I wrote something else for him. It will be premiered in Paris when the war is over.
MO Is Diaghilev in Paris at the moment?
SP No, I think he must be in Madrid.
MO And Nijinsky?
SP When war broke out he was in Vienna on tour and was arrested! Now I hear that he appears every night at the State Opera or some other theatre.
MO I had no idea. By the way, how did it happened that you were exempted from going to the front?
SP I am an only son, and only sons are exempt from conscription. Also, the law as it stands means that musicians do not have to join the army.
MO That is very fortunate. So you are free to travel and to compose?
SP Yes. Not long ago I was in the Caucasus, but then the riots and unrest began and I could not get back to Petrograd. But at least I could compose down there, and I wrote my Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas and worked on my Violin Concerto.
MO You are due to give concerts in the Imperial Theatre. You are including new works, are you not, Visions Fugitives and a Fantasia?
SP Yes. Visions Fugitives is a sequence of short pieces. I corrected the proofs before leaving Petrograd, so the work must be in print by now. The Fantasia is actually the final movement of my Fourth Sonata; playing the whole work would make the concert too long, so I am only going to play this final movement.
MO Although you have composed a Sinfonietta, you have not yet written a symphony?
SP I have written symphonies, including my “Classical” Symphony. And the Sinfonietta is actually symphonic in scale. Not only that, but I have recently completed a choral symphony.
MO What is it called?
Here Prokofiev had to pause for thought, because he did not know how to express the title in English. Instead he told me what it was in French, but unfortunately I could not understand it. However, the work in question [Seven, they are Seven, Op. 30] is a setting of an Assyrian religious inscription, translated by Balmont. He continued:
SP It is a work for chorus with orchestra, and a solo tenor who sings the words of the priest. Since the forces employed are huge, it is not an easy work to perform on stage.
MO Balmont was in Japan a year or so ago.
SP Yes, he still speaks admiringly of Japan.
MO He liked it so much?
SP Yes, enormously.
MO But it is so hot here now. You ought to have been here two months earlier in the year.
SP Yes, it is certainly very warm now, too much so to play the piano during the daytime.
MO I am sorry for you, with your concert starting at one o’clock.
SP But when I pass this way again on my return from the States, it will surely be much better. Autumn in Japan must be beautiful.
MO Yes, the nicest season is October and November.
At this point the sound of a shamisen [a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument] was heard and the maikos began to dance. We watched them with our replenished sake cups in our hands. The dance was a Matsushima, but as I did not know the subject I was unable to explain it to Prokofiev. I reverted to our previous topic:
MO You are going to include some Chopin, aren’t you?
SP Yes. To tell you the truth, I normally only play my own compositions, but since this is my debut in Japan I have decided to add some Chopin because I do not think it is a good idea to play nothing but demanding pieces. Chopin is attractive for audiences to listen to. But I haven’t been able to practise properly for two and a half months, and I am concerned that my fingers may not be as nimble as I would like them to be.
MO You are not going to play the recital without practising at all?
SP Oh, no, of course not! For the first time I have just been practising at a friend’s house in Yokohama.
MO You are staying at the Grand Hotel?
MO Then please come and visit me at my house in Ohmori. It is between Tokyo and Yokohama.
SP Ah, Ohmori, I remember a railway station with that name. After my concert in the Imperial Theatre I will come and visit you.
MO I have a piano, and although it is not in perfect condition it would be entirely at your disposal. If you do come, would you play me the Scythian Suite? Or at least part of it?
SP I have the score of the Suite with me, because I thought I might conduct it in the United States. I’ll show it to you.
MO Even better!
I looked at my watch, which was showing 9 o’clock. At this point a photographer whom I had previously arranged came in, and we went out into the garden. Standing beside him I realised that Prokofiev is a good three inches taller than I am; he must stand about 5’8”. His white linen jacket was too short for him, and revealed a couple of inches of his red-striped shirt. But he seemed quite indifferent to this, and stood in front of the camera smiling nonchalantly. The bright magnesium light flared in front of our eyes, and the photograph was done.
“Well, now I must be off. I shall see you at the Imperial Theatre.” I shook his hand, and naturally he responded by firmly gripping mine.
In the taxi back to the Shimbashi station I could not help smiling as I recalled our