Milton Moore: Happy birthday to Sergei Prokofiev, The Natural
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One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor with my mother in front of the family's huge Magnavox floor console, listening to "Peter and the Wolf" and looking through the picture book of the instruments of the orchestra. I was the duckling, and Prokofiev was the basketball. I was imprinted for life.
So, happy birthday, Sergei, born April 27, 1891.
Prokofiev has always been one of my favorites. I think of him as one of the all-time greats, but many would disagree. He wasn't atonal enough to satisfy the "who cares if you listen" crowd of mid-century. And he was too sarcastic and rude to please the Rachmaninoff Romantics crowd. He was politicized in the U.S. as a Soviet, then denounced by Stalin as not Soviet enough.
Prokofiev was, quite simply, The Natural. He began writing music before anyone taught him how to write musical notation, and he had that same gift of endless melody as the likes of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Whenever Prokofiev would get stuck, he had a tune. But he was also a Modernist, and he relied time and again on motor rhythms to drive music forward. When proselytizing on classical music with rock music fans, I often start with Prokofiev.
He wrote so much – operas, ballets (the greatest of the century), symphonies, film scores, concertos – it' s almost impossible to rank them. So here are just some favorites:
What better starting point than the earworm melody of Peter stepping out into the sunny world from "Peter and the Wolf," that narrated guide to the orchestra.
Next, one of the truly spellbinding melodies of the 20th century, the slow movement from Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, as performed by Gil Shaham and Andre Previn. The orchestra bloom at 1:10 always gives me shivers. This is immortal music.
Like all Soviet composers, Prokofiev wrote film scores. This section, the troika scene from "Lieutenant Kijé," is so descriptive that it paints an image of the horse-drawn sleigh racing through the snow without resorting to film.
Next, the greatest film score of all time, "Alexander Nevsky," the result of collaboration between two giants: Prokofiev and director Sergei Eisenstein (the two would review the rushes every night, and the director would cast scenes to fit Prokofiev's scoring concepts). This music is often performed as a cantata, but the film is wonderful. The ominous motif for the invading Teutonic knights is the original bad-guy theme.
Of his seven symphonies, the fifth was Prokofiev's masterpiece. An uneasy work (written during the war that killed 25 million of his countrymen), this last movement races out of the gloom. Prokofiev used to take train trips to cure writer's block, and you sense the miles rattling past. The coda is an amazing convulsion.
And I end with Prokofiev distilled down to his most basic elements: lyricism and nastiness. This movement from his Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano opens with a rude and aggressive theme, then at 1:05, it transforms with a lovely, songlike theme. After you settle back into calm, he attacks again – and again, blending beauty and the beast.
Prokofiev holds a special place for me, and in time, critics will stop holding his popularity against him.