Prokofiev and Jewish Music
"I must be the only Jewish composer!":
Prokofiev and Jewish Music (Nelly Kravetz)
Prokofiev, the Diva, and the Nightingale
The Curious Case of Alexei Stahl
Prokofiev and the Myth of the Father of Nations: The Cantata Zdravitsa (Vladimir Orlov)
Re-examining Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Projects (Eleanor Swithinbank)
Marin Alsop and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony (1947) (Andrew Grossman)
Serge Prokofiev. Hands (1919)
Prokofiev’s early years in America are documented in superabundance in his diaries, which reveal periods of terrible hardship, both physical and material, as well as the composer’s prideful tenacity—his belief in himself and his ultimate ability to conquer the American public. Missing from the chronicle are the actual details of his compositional activities, and the reactions of those whose opinion he trusted to his hardscrabble attempts to raise his profile in New York and Chicago. Certain modest works fall through the cracks, including his orchestration of a song composed by his teacher Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. (Titled “The Rose and the Nightingale,” it dates from Rimsky-Korsakov’s youth; indeed, it was only the second song that he composed, and the first of several on an Eastern, or “oriental” theme.) Prokofiev’s arrangement was made as a favor of sorts to the soprano Vera Janacopoulos, one of his first contacts in New York. Her interactions with the composer, along with those of her husband-in-waiting, Alexei Stahl, were the subject of a short lecture given in London in 2004 by NoŽlle Mann, the founding editor of this journal. NoŽlle asked me to complete her talk for publication, and I have belatedly honored that request here, appending to her text three letters from Stahl—an extremely enigmatic character—to Prokofiev.
New York is also the star (of sorts) of the feature article by Nelly Kravetz, the Associate Editor of this journal and Professor of Music at Tel Aviv University. It concerns Prokofiev’s interest in Jewish folklore, which was fueled by his interactions with the Zimro Ensemble, founded by the clarinetist Simon Bellison in 1918 in Petrograd. The Zimro toured through Russia, China, and Indonesia before ending up in the United States in 1919. After a performance in September of that year in Chicago, the six-piece ensemble (clarinet, piano, and string quartet) travelled to New York. The mission of the ensemble, and the Petrograd association that sponsored it, was to raise awareness of Jewish culture. Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes was essentially commissioned by the group, though, as Kravetz makes clear, Prokofiev’s interest in musical Judaica extended to other scores. Pleased with the success of the score, Prokofiev arranged it for orchestra in 1934. In their discussions of the score, Soviet musicologists emphasized Prokofiev’s ability to abstract the folk tunes from which he drew inspiration. The Jewishness of the music was de-emphasized in the official discourse.
This issue of the journal also includes a new reading of Prokofiev’s notorious 1939 paean to Stalin, the cantata Zdravitsa, which he composed in celebration of Stalin’s 60th birthday. Vladimir Orlov compares the works to other contributions to the cult of personality surrounding the ruler, while also touching on the ethical issues surrounding its present-day performance. This is a distilled version of an article published in the fall 2013 issue of The Journal of Musicology, which in turn comes from the author’s 2010 University of Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation. Orlov’s study of Prokofiev’s cantata for the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, “Flourish, Mighty Land,” will appear in the next issue of the journal.
Together with a review by Andrew Grossman, a Prokofiev aficionado with an expert ear, this issue concludes with Eleanor Swithinbank’s survey of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet obsession, which resulted in much more than the illustrious 1935-40 ballet. There are the three Romeo and Juliet orchestral suites to consider, and the ten Romeo and Juliet piano pieces that he completed in 1937, and that he later sanctioned his part-time assistant Levon Atovmyan to realize for lesser-skilled performers.
29 March 2014