Piano Concerto No. 3, op. 26

Composer: 

        Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich are the two composers who stood above the rest of those who labored during the years of the Soviet Union.  Unlike, Shostakovich, however, Prokofiev enjoyed part of his career living and composing in the West, returning to the USSR in 1936 voluntarily.  Like his compatriot, he must be counted as one of the great composers of the twentieth century, although unlike Shostakovich, his direct influence on composers outside of the Soviet sphere was minimal.  He was a virtuoso pianist, but who also composed from the beginning, graduating from the St. Petersburg shortly before World War I.  His musical style was based in the Russian romantic tradition, but he established early on a personal idiom that was characterized by pungent dissonance, soaring lyrical melodies, a facile manipulation of motoric rhythms, and kaleidoscopic harmonic changes.  Part and parcel of his musical personality was an acerbic appreciation of satire, parody, and even the grotesque.

        Although he travelled widely early on, all the while he returned to the Soviet Union from time to time for extensive concertizing; his works were performed frequently there, and he always kept his Soviet passport.  He was never a political naïf regarding the life of artists under that political system, and it must be surmised that his eventual removal to the USSR was made with open eyes.   His musical language had been gradually moving to a simpler, more accessible style—a necessary condition for artists who wished to serve a collectivist state and appeal to the masses.  So, when he and his family arrived in Russia in 1936, he adapted readily to political requirements by composing works that addressed the necessary content of  “socialist realism.”   This primarily meant patriotic subjects, in a traditional musical style, that served political ends. 

        Never really playing his political cards, he managed to survive the incredibly difficult times during the 1940s by adroit artistic gamesmanship with the harshly repressive Stalinist state.  He never joined the Communist Party, and made few public statements.  He struggled to survive, maintain his artistic integrity and continue composing in an authentically personal style.  But, alas, the difficulties of the extreme, repressive measures beginning in 1948 ultimately got the best of him.  His death on 5 March 1953 ironically garnered little recognition—Joseph Stalin’s demise on the same date preëmpted the stage.

        Prokofiev, in addition to his education as a composer, trained as a concert pianist, and early on began supplying himself with compositions.  Among his early piano works he wrote two piano concertos—the first he played for his final student examinations at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1914.  He witnessed (and supported) the Revolution in 1917, but it is noteworthy that in May 1918 he left Russia and the struggles of the proletariat, and travelled all the way across Russia through Siberia to Tokyo, and then on to New York.  You might say that he sneaked out the backdoor.  His goal was obviously to enrichen himself though solo piano touring in the US, like his acquaintance and competitor Rachmaninov.   Prokofiev struggled somewhat more than did Rachmaninov during these years, for the latter was much more amenable to playing a popular program of more accessible music than was Prokofiev.  In any case, in 1921, in contemplation of another American season ahead of him, Prokofiev, completed the third piano concerto while vacationing in Brittany. 

        It was not all completely new, for many of the ideas and sketches went back a few years.  The work contains all of the pungent, vigorous, rhythm-driven characteristics of Prokofiev.  Nevertheless, some of its clarity and melodic directness may reflect his anticipation of conservative American audiences.  He gave the première with the Chicago Symphony in December of 1921.  While not an immediate success—that came after its European début—the concerto went on to become the most popular of his five piano concertos.

        The orchestra takes an important rôle throughout the work, and participates as equal—not only in announcing the musical material, but in its development as well.  Two clarinets open the slow introduction, and not long after a whirlwind in the strings leads into a look at that material by the energetic soloist.  Later, contrasting ideas are heard first in the oboe (with castanets!), followed yet again by a re-interpretation by the soloist.   The middle “working out” is a kick, and features the famous driving octaves of the pianist, ripping up and down the scale.   Naturally, Prokofiev provides a suitable, brilliant ending to the affair.  The middle movement consists of a theme with five variations, each with a distinct character. It opens almost demurely, with a dignified, moderate dance-like theme, played by the solo flute and then clarinet—almost “classical.”  Then, “boom”—the first variation takes off like mad.  Other variations—they’re short and you’ll be able to count them easily—go through a variety of moods and character.  Much of Prokofiev’s complicated personal character come to the fore, but you’re never quite sure what authentic and what’s sarcastic.  Listen for the theme played by the flute amidst the bustle of the last variation.   It all ends suspiciously serenely, though.

        The last movement opens with bassoons and strings, playing the main idea of the movement, a rather lurching march, but in three beats to the bar. The piano joins in the intense parade, and after a bit, a new section ensues that displays the composer’s famed gift for soaring lyrical melody, in the best of heartthrob Russian romanticism.  The musical war resumes, however, and the soloist and the orchestra go the full ten rounds—each finding resourceful and virtuoso “ammunition” as the they maniacally drive to the end.  It’s all breathtakingly entertaining, and ample evidence of all of the aspects of the composer’s inimitable style that have led to his immense popularity ever since.  But, in the midst of all of the crackling wit, sparkling style, and supercharged performance, we are still left wondering how much of Prokofiev, himself, the composer has allowed us to hear.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan