Monday, February 18, 2013

Through a Glass darkly

A couple of weeks ago I introduced you to a set of children's pieces by Sergei Prokoffiev.  On that occasion I posted the first four and today I thought I'd reserve the blog for only one of the pieces which deserves some special comment. The entire set has 12 pieces in it.

Today's selection is the sixth one in the set and the only piece I played as a child: the rest came about when I was sorting through music in my home a month or so ago and noticed the little thin green volume lying there and had the sort of inclination I sometimes have to complete the puzzle. I used to know one of the pieces, why not learn the remaining 11? And as an adult with quite a lot more ability than I had some three decades ago, that didn't turn out to take very long. Longer than I thought it would, actually (even Prokofiev's easiest pieces are still harder than mid-level pieces by other pianists) but nevertheless, within a week I had the full recording that you can hear at your leisure over at the archives of pianonoise.

That little waltz I played at 10? 12? was also a window into the past. I mentioned last time that I didn't know anything about Prokofiev as a human being back then. I had also not encountered his music before. It was a strange sort of introduction. If you listen to it it comes across as a nice little waltz tune with some rough edges. For one reason or another the composer turns some interesting corners harmonically, and causes a sequence of musical events that are quite original to him alone. You really can't listen to anything by Prokofiev and not know it.

I didn't know anything about "wrong note" technique as practiced by Soviet-era composers (particularly Shostakovich) to suggest, subtly (survivably) that there really was something wrong with Stalin's paradise (towing the party line with a smile but letting those in the know know there was something else underneath). I also would have been completely unaware of how the 20th century looked back on other musical periods of seeming innocence with nostalgia and then ironic critique as teenagers do when they make the discovery that life is a lot more rotten in many ways than their childhood bubbles of innocence permitted them to find out. In other words, this Waltz seems to (in Prokoffiev's own phrase he used to describe some of his compositional tendencies) "step on the throat of its own song."

Why would Prokofiev do something like that in a piece for children? Besides, he wasn't living in the Soviet Union at that point; he was still in France. Was it because that hard won compositional originality was hard to put down (there are plenty of people who do put it down but think how difficult it is to be noticed in this or any era and realize how valuable a skill it is to be recognized by your own imprint)? Was it because he couldn't help making an adultly ironic commentary in the margins, not to be perceived by the kids but only their worldly wise parents? Or maybe he just was really bad at writing for children? After all, he didn't have any, and up until that point in his life he had been living an artistic life of concerts and composition, forever on tour and in the papers, dealing with impresarios and agents and adoring fans, and critics.

Far from all of that, my first, boyhood impression as that the piece was just sort of weird.

How many of us approach art like that? We don't really get it; maybe we don't have the tools to understand it. And we never proceed beyond that point. In a tragedy I've seen played out several times as an adult, the adults in charge don't really understand it either, or they don't take the time to explain it. So the puzzled youngsters are just left to make whatever they can of their experience of the products of great minds of very different times and places and circumstances and compositional techniques--adult minds. How would you expect someone young to grapple with all that?

Generally what we end up with is a little like the Roman circus. We like it or we don't. Thumbs up or down. And if we don't like it....our experience ends there.

Mine didn't, of course. I can hear a lot more in that little waltz than I used to, and I appreciate the "oddness" of it for a lot of reasons, for the familiarity of Prokofiev's voice to being grateful that he avoided so much cliche in a genre that is home to so many. It glitters, it shines, and it disturbs a little.

I can hear it now.

Prokofiev: Waltz from Music for Children

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