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Prokofiev's Ballets for Diaghilev.

Prokofiev's Ballets for Diaghilev. By Stephen D. Press. Burlington, VT: Ash-gate, 2006. [xvii, 294 p. ISBN 0-7546-0404-0. $99.95.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliography, index.

From specialists in Russian music to devotees of ballet, most music lovers are acquainted to at least some degree with Sergei Prokofiev's mature ballets of the Soviet period. Masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella have graced theater playbills and concert programs with welcome regularity, while our piano students have stumbled their way, with varying success, through "The Dance of the Knights." The body of scholarly literature on these works has also been growing steadily. Yet relatively little attention has been paid until recently to Prokofiev's early--pre-Romeo--work in the genre of ballet. Russian scholars may have been prevented from investigating the topic by the ideological trappings of a carefully constructed myth, still relatively intact, about a repentant modernist who did not truly find his voice as a composer until he was back on his native soil. Western researchers, meanwhile, have tended to dismiss the composer's early ballets as ineffectual, "clumsy clones" of Stravinsky's contemporaneous masterpieces. (Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996], 1511.) Consequently, Prokofiev's Ballets for Diaghilev by Stephen D. Press is, shockingly enough, the first book-length study in any language of the composer's early work in ballet. As such, the new volume is a long overdue and much welcomed contribution to Prokofiev scholarship.

Press's work focuses on Prokofiev's three major Western ballets--Chout, Le pas d'acier, and L'enfant prodigue--as well as on his early aborted attempt, Alai Lolly, known today only in its orchestral reincarnation, the ever popular Scythian Suite. While stylistic analysis constitutes an important part of the content, the volume's main theme is the young composer's complex relationship with the Ballets Russes circle and its charismatic leader, Serge Diaghilev. The author argues that Diaghilev not only brought Prokofiev into the modern ballet universe, thus providing the means of his success in the West, but also--over years of patient guidance--educated his brash but inexperienced compatriot about the intricacies of effective ballet writing. Essentially, Press believes, he made the composer into the master of the genre that we know today. Furthermore, in so doing, the impresario molded Prokofiev's overall compositional style, steering it towards the so-called "new simplicity"--a more consonant, melodious, and "classical" (rather than "neoclassical") style that characterizes the composer's Soviet-era works, starting with Romeo and Juliet.

The book benefits tremendously from its extensive use of primary sources, including press reviews, correspondence, extant sketches of the music, and Prokofiev's newly published diaries that cover the discussed time period and are quoted liberally throughout the volume. These documents, some of which have only recently been made available for study, will broaden the reader's understanding of the composer's life and work. They also do much to enrich and enliven Press's narrative, as is particularly evident from perusing an extensive biographical essay that opens the book. In it, the author discusses Prokofiev's years abroad and his relationship with Diaghilev and his circle, from their first interactions prior to World War I through 1929, the year of the impresario's death. This engaging account uncovers few substantial new facts, but does correct several old misconceptions about Prokofiev's Western career, some of which stem from the composer's own Autobiography penned in the Soviet Union years later. The first chapter thus provides a nice framework for the rest of the volume. I only wish that this monograph-sized opening could be made easier to digest by providing subheadings, especially since all other chapters, some substantially shorter than this one, include them.

Some of the strongest pages in the book concern the shaping of Prokofiev's style of ballet writing through his revision, under Diaghilev's tutelage, of his Ballets Russes scores. Discussions of the revision process for Chout, Prokofiev's first Diaghilev premiere (chap. 3), and L'enfant prodigue, his last (chap. 5), offer an enlightening glimpse into the composer's creative mind, as well as the internal operations of Diaghilev's company. Detailed comparisons of the original and revised versions of Chout are particularly instructive. Equally intriguing is the author's elucidation of Prokofiev's struggle to navigate between his original impulse of writing so-called "presentational" (i.e., descriptive) music, and more generally "danceable," but symphonically developed material Diaghilev demanded in order to release the creative freedom of his choreographers.

A more controversial argument made throughout the book concerns Prokofiev's stylistic shift towards "new simplicity"--the shift that was specifically encouraged by Diaghilev during the composition of Le pas d'acier. The author posits that, contrary to prevailing scholarly opinion, there is no significant stylistic chasm between Prokofiev's Western and Soviet-era ballets. Press believes that aggressive modernism and melodious lyricism coexisted side by side in the composer's scores as early as Alai Lolly, and the difference a listener observes in the music is merely one of degree--of the relative emphasis on one style over the other. (A similar argument has been advanced, albeit from a different perspective, by Deborah Wilson in her paper on Romeo and Juliet presented at the 1997 meeting in Phoenix of the American Musicological Society) Yet the author also admits that the lyricism, a harbinger of Romeo, passed unnoticed by the public and the press of Le pas d'acier, drowned by the hammers of the infamous "factory finale." Furthermore, he does not provide any conclusive evidence from primary sources to document Prokofiev's intent; the term "new simplicity" is borrowed from the Autobiography which, as Press would be the first to agree, is not always the most reliable source.

Another important idea tackled through-out the book is the ever-thorny issue of the possible influences exerted on Prokofiev's early ballets by, among others, Russian folk and art traditions, and fashion-conscious, jazz-crazy Parisian culture of the 1920s. Central to this issue is the complex relationship, both stylistic and personal, between the composer and Diaghilev's other-Russian "son"--Igor Stravinsky. And this is where Press exhibits an anxiety of influence worthy of his subject. He continually emphasizes the differences between the two composers' contemporaneous works while downplaying any similarities or explaining them away either as zeitgeist or shared heritage. Countering accusations of Stravinskianism commonly leveled at Alai Lolly and Chout, in particular, he declares that "Prokofiev did not rely upon Stravinsky's ballets as models" (p. 128), while Stravinsky's documented tutelage, at Diaghilev's urging, of his younger colleague amounted to no more than a pat on the back. Substantiating these arguments, however, proves problematic--unfortunately so, since the author's main point is well taken. It is unclear why Press feels the need to protest any possibility of the impact of Le sacre du printemps on the driving rhythms of the Scythian Suite by emphasizing Prokofiev's obsession with originality, and his professed dislike of both musical borrowing and other composers' music. The argument is simply not convincing, since we do not know how sincere Prokofiev was in his own protestations, and how carefully he was listening nonetheless. Absent a signed confession that the composer was unlikely to provide, given both his personality and his complicated relationship with Stravinsky, both well documented in the present volume, it seems impossible to prove a negative--which might be the reason Press tends to belabor the point.

In addition to his assessment of Prokofiev's stylistic development, Press discusses a variety of artistic movements with which Diaghilev's company, and by extension Prokofiev's ballets were associated in terms of musical style as well as choreography and decor. The cases of Italian futurism and jazz are clearly stated, with many interesting and enlightening examples. The same cannot always be said for the multitude of trends in the visual arts as practiced by Diaghilev's Russian collaborators. Terms such as "neo-nationalism," "neo-primitivism," "cubism," "futurism," and "constructivism" tend to be used arbitrarily--sometimes as synonyms, at other times demarcating contrasting ideas. The result is an unsatisfactorily blurry picture of the Ballets Russes' decorative world. For instance, equating primitivism and cubism (as Press does in his discussion of Mikhail Larionov's designs for Chout) seems problematic: to Russian modernist painters "primitivism" and so-called "cubo-futurism" would have represented two distinct cultural phenomena, divergent as much in their techniques as in their underlying ideologies.

Overall, the archival work that provides the foundation for the present volume is very thorough, and the author offers some fresh and insightful ideas. Prokofiev's Ballets for Diaghilev is engagingly written, and for the most part accessible to a non-specialist. (Although if a reader is not fluent in French, it might be a good idea to keep a dictionary handy for navigating numerous untranslated passages) Yet it seems that Press is most at home within the fascinating but relatively narrow confines of the Prokofiev archive. The moment he steps outside of these confines into a wider world of the historical, cultural, and artistic currents of the 1910s and 1920s, his analyses and interpretations are hit and miss. And without understanding these trends, one cannot begin to contemplate the Ballets Russes phenomenon that was so invested in them--following some, defining or challenging others. As a result, while in the opinion of this reviewer, Press is right more often than he is wrong, the nagging feeling remains that his arguments are not always to be trusted. In spite of these concerns, however, Prokofiev's Ballets for Diaghilev is a landmark publication that fills a significant void in Prokofiev scholarship, and is therefore well worth exploring. Hopefully, it will generate interest and debate, and lead to more research on this very important topic.

OLGA HALDEY

University of Maryland, College Park
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Author:Haldey, Olga
Publication:Notes
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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