My Mid-Prokofiev Book Midlife Crisis About Prokofiev's Midlife Crisis

Who doesn’t recycle their work a little?

The P-man himself strolling down Michigan Avenue in 1919.

We’re more than halfway through Prokofiev month, and lucky for me—and you, for what it’s worth—I’m more than halfway through my big Prokofiev biography, which means I’ll be on track to finish up with a big treat for next week’s piece (trust me). Being halfway through the book means I am also halfway through Prokofiev’s life, and he, not unlike all of us, had something of a mid-career crisis which I am thrilled to be exploring this week.

As I wrote last week, Prokofiev often found himself writing between two worlds: the very modern and atonal style of Stravinsky and pals, and the old classical music that still swept continental Europe. This did not really chill out for him in the 1920s. In fact, it worsened! By this point in time, Prokofiev had left Russia right on the cusp of it becoming the USSR so he could tour in Europe and the United States. One of the things I was most excited to read about in this biography was about Prokofiev’s time in Chicago, where I am from. Unfortunately, he did not like Chicago, and he thought we were all morons! That’s fine! Who cares! I’m over it! Following years of touring, Prokofiev landed in Paris for a while where he hung around with Stravinsky and his benefactor Serge Diaghilev and some other Russian expats.

While Stravinsky was more than happy to rebrand as a Parisian, Prokofiev did feel the occasional odd tug in his heart to return to Russia. But Russia was different! Extremely different! And he was not really welcome there, especially after the fiasco with his ballet, Le pas d’acier. What was Le pas d’acier, you might be asking? Well, first, it’s not the piece I’m covering this week. The main thing you need to know is that it was Prokofiev’s ballet about “the worker” and you gotta believe that a country that just overthrew its government did not want a ballet about the worker. Obviously now we can say things like “no shit,” but Paris ate it up. Of course Paris loved a ballet about the worker; has Paris ever “gotten it”? (Don’t answer this.)

This became the push and pull of the middle of Prokofiev’s career. What Paris loved, the USSR didn’t. When he leaned too heavily into his Slavic or Russian roots, his Western audience didn’t get it. He had a string of failures: his Second Symphony was a freaking bust, his opera The Fiery Angel was too religious and strange, his Third Symphony made out of reconstructed material from The Fiery Angel was a little more successful but derided for being recycled, his ballet The Prodigal Son was only kind of a success. And then came the Fourth Symphony—hello, it’s finally here, which was—anyone got a guess?—recycled material from The Prodigal Son. Everyone loved to jump down Prokofiev’s throat for doing shit like this but I recycle my material all the time. Everything is a remix! Whatever.

Here’s the thing: it’s tough to find a recording of the Fourth Symphony in its original form. You notice in the description on Spotify that it’s named Opus 47/122; this is because when Prokofiev finally did return to Russia, he was forced to revise the original draft so it did not seem formalist in nature. So what I’ve attached to this column is the revised version and folks… I love it?

It’s tough to say what comes from what edit or version of the ballet without a deeply specific analysis of multiple scores which, I’ll be honest, I have absolutely no time to do these days. So we’ll have to listen to this non-formalist revision of the symphony. It opens with a fairly regal theme, almost Beethoven-esque in nature, and not with the typical atonality perhaps expected of Prokofiev at this point. Which makes sense, when you look at it. It’s an Allegro eroica—“heroic.” This is the longest movement in the symphony, and it stretches and builds over time. I particularly love the deep, brassy crescendo around the 10:42 mark.

The second movement, Andante tranquillo, is also as it sounds: tranquil. It begins with a soft flute solo, backed with warm support by the strings. But where it really gets going for me is at the 2:44 mark with a slow, rhythmic march between the percussion and woodwinds. There’s that signature style and playfulness and almost sarcasm I’ve come to expect from a lot of Prokofiev pieces. The guy keeps tugging at my heart in this movement around 5:06—there are those freaking cellos I know and love. While there is much greatness to the opening movement of the Fourth Symphony, it’s this midway point in the second where the whole thing clicks into place. Just as you start to feel comfortable in the skin of the piece, the peculiarity of the Moderato quasi allegretto takes off. This third movement is no doubt inspired, at least in part, by Grieg. No way in heck could this exist without In The Hall Of The Mountain King! It’s equally mischievous and funny and strange. This is the movement that also most sounds like a dance, clearly adapted from The Prodigal Son. All of the sections are in dialogue with each other throughout as if representing the voices of its characters.

The Allegro risoluto has the same plucky intensity as the Moderato quasi allegretto with none of the humor. Here, the weight of first movement sweeps back in. A light, formal march begins around the 3:24 mark, once again deferring to the power of the flute as it did in the second movement. Though he was a pianist at heart, I have always found that Prokofiev knows how to use woodwinds to the best of their abilities. The core melody of the march is carried through the brass as well, increasingly more heroic in nature. Its stirring conclusion is proof there was still much value to be had in the odd doldrums of Prokofiev’s career—a lesson I learned as I dug through his revisions and edits and symphonies and ballets. It can be so frustrating to have an audience not understand you, to want you one way but not the other, and for Prokofiev, living in two worlds, this push and pull gave way to some of the most poignant musical tension I’ve heard.