Restless Spirits in Turbulent Times
Prokofiev, Beethoven and Mussorgsky could have used an occasional breather
They were commonly regarded as great music revolutionaries, but the three occasionally also behaved like counter-revolutionaries. Sergei Prokofiev was particularly adept at shifting into reverse – not to make the Moscow avenues more hazardous with the Ford that he brought along in 1936 in his foolhardy return to the Soviet Union; no: at the steering wheel he was mercilessly progressive. But compositionally he occasionally took some quite peculiar and surprising turns.
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25 »Symphonie classique«
One can draw an analogy between his extreme vacillation between forward and backward and the social upheaval that gripped Russia from 1905 onwards. The situation was not only marked by widespread poverty; it had brought about an emancipation of the peasants as well as a resurgence of industrialization and science. Then came the Revolution, which Prokofiev both welcomed and feared, and the ambivalence strongly influenced his work in those years. At the time of the February Revolution he was living in Petrograd. “During the uprising itself, I was in the streets,” the composer reported, “and, from time to time, hid behind projections from walls when the shooting became too fierce. The 19th Vision fugitive, which was written at this time, partly conveys my impressions – more a reflection of the crowd’s excitement than of the Revolution’s essence.” At the same time, Prokofiev was still constantly creating works of lyrical internalization and nostalgic retrospection. This form of recreation and distance was indispensable, vital. Thus in the summer of 1917 he completed the “Classical Symphony”.
The title is not entirely accurate, because what Prokofiev offers the listener cannot unequivocally be connected with the Classical era. His symphony goes further back, even beyond Joseph Haydn, who served as his model. A gavotte – Prokofiev’s third movement – is to be found nowhere in the 104 symphonies of Haydn. This dance form clearly belongs to the Baroque, as does the Air comprising the symphony’s slow movement. And the melody quoted from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden in the finale scarcely evokes the era of Viennese Classicism.
To call the Classical Symphony a specimen of musical satire, as Leonard Bernstein did, falls short of the mark, a retreat to the one-way street of preconception. Its composer is neither lighter nor simpler than, for example, Dmitri Shostakovich. And if his music sometimes sounds light-hearted and harmless, it is only attempting to banish the terrors out of which it arose.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37
Nor was Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto created in a vacuum. As overstated as the mystification of this composer, already incipient during his lifetime, may seem, no less understated is today’s limitation of discussion to purely aesthetic factors. We have a great deal of biographical information about his early years in Vienna, but little about the background leading to the composition of this concerto. It is surely not irrelevant that in 1802, while he was carrying out his principal work on the Third Piano Concerto, Beethoven also began composing the Eroica; or that it is his only concerto in the minor, and in the same key as the Fifth Symphony; or that the work appeared in print in 1804 with a dedication to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a gifted pianist and composer who, two years later, would fall at Saalfeld leading his troops in battle against the French – a few days before Prussia’s even more decisive defeat in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt. Bonaparte had, of course, already cemented his grip on central Europe militarily, as Beethoven was fully aware.
The spirit of the age is deeply engrained in Beethoven’s works, including the C minor Piano Concerto, which had its premiere in 1803. This spirit, however, is concealed under a wealth of compositional stratagems, which are not immediately obvious. Even early on, Mozart’s powerful influence was widely noted, especially the Piano Concertos in D minor and C minor, which Beethoven famously loved. The tragic element in Mozart here takes on heroic features, and the heroic, in turn, not infrequently yields to idyllic scenes, for example when the sombre opening is followed by an almost easy-going, bucolic second theme. The slow movement, a Largo in the key of E major, disconcertingly remote from the opening movement’s C minor, turns into a romantic confession, an evocation of time-defying subjectivity. The finale, formally a rondo, does not exactly offer the upbeat ending expected by audiences of that time, instead recommencing the opening movement’s combativeness in a thoroughly humorous, though occasionally aggressive, fashion. It is also in C minor. The turn to C major does not arrive until the piano’s brief cadenza.
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestral version by Maurice Ravel)
General Alexander Rimsky-Korsakov, a forebear of the famous composer, was involved in Bonaparte’s triumph in 1801 that ended the War of the Second Coalition. The Russian troops were led at the time by Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov, who had previously served in one of the two elite life-guard regiments of the imperial army. In 1856, a 17-year-old cadet also entered one of those old regiments. Elegantly clad, speaking flawless German and French, cosmopolitan in his thinking, astonishingly adept on the piano, his name was Modest Mussorgsky. Fortunately, he quickly abandoned the idea of a military career.
The piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition, composed within a few weeks in 1874, displays the relaxed and witty side of Mussorgsky’s personality. It consists of tone pictures based on paintings by the composer’s late friend Viktor Hartmann, who had died at the age of 39. Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition of 400 pictures and selected ten of them, thematically joining them with short, thoughtful promenades that lead from one picture to the next. There are no explicitly Russian motifs – “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” deals with a pan-Slavic myth and “The Great Gate of Kiev”, strictly speaking, is located in the Ukraine. Even more striking are the titles chosen by Mussorgsky, using five foreign languages: French (“Promenade”, “Tuileries”, “Limoges”), Latin (“Gnomus”, “Catacombae”), Italian (“Il vecchio castello”), Polish (“Bydło”) and Yiddish (“Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle”). Only the “Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”, “Great Gate of Kiev” and “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” are headed in Cyrillic in the first edition of 1886.
When he created the piano cycle, Mussorgsky had long since distanced himself from the Western tastes of his younger years and now accepted only Franz Liszt. As a result, he was long reproached for amateurish piano writing. Only gradually came the recognition of how much he had anticipated the innovations of Debussy and Bartók. Ravel’s 1922 orchestration contributed substantially to the acceptance, indeed popularity, of Pictures at an Exhibition. We may confidently call the orchestral version ideally matched to the original – neither better nor worse.