Prodigal Son

Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography

by Harlow Robinson
Viking, 573 pp., $29.95

In the 1940s, when Shostakovich was at the height of his success in America, I heard Stravinsky being asked what he thought of the Soviet composer and I still remember the venom in his voice as he shouted back, “Pas de talent.” A followup question solicited his opinion of Prokofiev and, all venom gone, he said that was an entirely different thing. Some years earlier Stravinsky himself had been the composer who was most likely to figure in such a comparison with Prokofiev. In Paris, where Prokofiev settled as a refugee in the aftermath of the October Revolution after having tried his fortune in America, Diaghilev admitted him as a member of his coterie and referred to him as his “second son”—Stravinsky having been for a number of years his “first.” The manner in which the “brothers” pursued their careers in tandem for a while is one of the subjects generously described by Harlow Robinson with his flair for interesting and relevant information in his absorbing new biography of Prokofiev. It becomes evident from Robinson’s account that instead of what should have been pride on Prokofiev’s part the pairing with Stravinsky brought out Prokofiev’s competitiveness. He was “very aware of Stravinsky’s head start with Diaghilev.”

Prokofiev was not without a certain reputation of his own, even if this was owing in no small part to his tours as a brilliant pianist playing his own music, which were, incidentally, his main source of income during his years outside Russia between 1918 and 1935. (A picture caption in an American periodical once read: “The composer Stravinsky and the pianist Prokofiev.”) I know of many composers who would be content with the international reputation Prokofiev had achieved. But Prokofiev set his sights higher. In one of the less felicitously worded statements in a capably written narrative Robinson observes: “Prokofiev’s fear of becoming second-rate haunted him throughout his years in Paris, where he was only one fish in a large and glamorous pool, competing for the attention of a sophisticated public and fickle promoters.”

In addition to being able to rely on ballet commissions from Diaghilev, Prokofiev enjoyed the patronage of Serge Koussevitzky, who had a concert series in Paris at which he presented the composer’s music. With the conductor’s departure in 1924 to assume the directorship of the Boston Symphony, and the death of the powerful impresario in 1929, Prokofiev had good reason by the end of the 1920s to fear for his future. Moreover, some of his compositions were poorly received (his adventurous Second Symphony among them) and other music was not played at all. The notion gradually impressed itself upon him that opportunity was offered by his native land. His return for a visit in 1927 was so highly acclaimed that it must certainly have confirmed his belief that his success in the West, limited though it may have appeared in his own estimation, would sustain him as a conquering hero in Russia …

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