Oliver Gilmour

A career in the West

Oliver Gilmour looks at a second volume of Sergei Prokofiev's diaries

Was Sergey Prokofiev a better diarist than a composer? We embark on this new volume with the 23-year-old enfant terrible living in St Petersburg. We are there during the ten days that shook the world, and although initially unshaken, Prokofiev escaped the turmoil of revolution and in 1918 headed for San Francisco. The following years take us to most of the rest of America, as well as to Paris, London, Barcelona and Tokyo.

Both volumes of diaries — the previous one, Prodigious Youth, covering 1907-1914 — are beautifully presented and meticulously annotated, representing an extraordinary achievement by their translator Anthony Phillips. Although Isaiah Berlin thought Prokofiev ‘the stupidest of the great composers’, on the evidence of these diaries, full of tantalising vignettes and aperçus, he comes across as highly intelligent. But a great composer? He was accomplished, proficient, skilful and galvanised; and doubtless would have agreed with Baudelaire that intoxication was the secret. ‘Enivrez-vous sans cesse! De vin, de poésie, de vertu . . . .’ It was this sense of creative energy more than genius that established his pre-eminence. And, according to his friend Walter Nouvel, he was a ‘thorough- going careerist’. Judging by his dealings with Diaghilev and the Chicago Opera, his business acumen was exceptional.

A subtext emerges in the diaries that indicates a lack of emotional involvement with his compositions. In 1913 (Volume I), ‘I was reading yesterday how deeply absorbed Tchaikovsky had been in the composition of his 6th Symphony’. This seems to have surprised Prokofiev. ‘I conducted it [the Classical Symphony] myself, completely improvising, having forgotten the score and never indeed having studied it from a conducting perspective’. ‘Diaghilev now begged me to remember and play [the 2nd Piano Concerto] which I neither could nor would’, he continues. More disconcerting still were his experiences rehearsing and performing the 3rd Concerto:

In fact it sounded fine, but the truth is I was improvising whole passages .

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