Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a prodigiously gifted pianist and composer. All in all, he composed 5½ piano concerti. (That was not a typo; an explanation will follow in a bit.)
The first two of his piano concerti were composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the Petrograd/Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which he attended from 1904 until 1914; from the ages of 13 to 23. On May 11, 1914, Prokofiev performed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (composed in 1912) at his Conservatory graduation ceremony. The ceremony was nothing less than a Prokofiev lovefest, as he graduated with high honors and was awarded the prestigious Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano, a prize that included a brand new Shreder grand piano. (“Shreder” was a Russian-made piano that was “based” on American Steinway pianos, a not unfamiliar example of Russian appropriation of American technology.)
Prokofiev chose to play his Piano Concerto No. 1 at his graduation ceremony rather than his Piano Concerto No. 2 (of 1913) because the premiere of that second piano concerto – 8 months prior, on September 5, 1913 – had created a scandal. Prokofiev, ordinarily as sensitive to such things as a lump of basalt, decided that the Second:
“would have resounded too impudently within the Conservatory walls.”
True that, and thus his performance of his First Piano Concerto this was a rare instance of Prokofiev doing the politic thing. He was, in fact, a bad boy, someone who generally thought nothing about anyone but himself.
Prokofiev had always been this way. An only child, he was badly spoiled by his upper middle-class parents. According to Prokofiev’s essential English language biographer, Harlow Robinson:
“Prokofiev grew up expecting attention and feeling that he could do and say almost anything he wanted. That he was at the center of his family without siblings to compete with – fostered in him a certain lack of regard for other people’s problems. He could be remarkably unsympathetic – even cruel – to those less fortunate, less talented, or less interesting.”
The tantrums Prokofiev threw regularly as a child continued unabated into his adolescence and adulthood. Tall, skinny, gangly, physically and socially awkward, with white-blonde hair, milk white skin, and oversized mouth and lips, he would sputter wildly, turn beet red, spastically wave his long arms, and scream uncontrollably when he didn’t get his way.
Tactless, insolent, leering, and crude, he nevertheless astounded his contemporaries with his compositional genius and pianistic brilliance, forcing the people around him to either tolerate him or not. Most did.
Prokofiev’s “volcanic” personality was reflected in his explosive and percussive manner of playing the piano. From the time of its invention circa 1700, the piano had been considered a stringed instrument, a stringed instrument that should be made to “sing” like other stringed instruments. But Prokofiev approached the piano for what it actually is: a percussion instrument, in which one object (a hammer) strikes another (a string) in order to create its sound.…
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