Do you have your tickets for this weekend’s Prokofiev Classical concert? (If not, buy them here!) In addition to Prokofiev’s first symphony, called “Classical,” the program also features Haydn’s Symphony no. 101 (“The Clock”) and the Los Angeles premiere of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto. And all ticket holders are invited to stick around for an after party featuring free drinks and appetizers! Need some icebreakers as you mix and mingle with other music aficionados? Try out these little-known facts about titular composer Sergei Prokofiev, including the famous piece he wrote in only four days, and the hobby that could also have made him a household name.
1) Prokofiev’s may perhaps be best known for “Peter and the Wolf” – an educational children’s piece he wrote in only four days. He wrote “Peter and the Wolf” as a favor to the Moscow Children’s Musical Theater, and offered to accept however much payment they could afford in their budget. Now it’s renowned the world over, but “Peter and the Wolf” got a slow start. It premiered on May 2, 1936, and, as Prokofiev himself noted, “[attendance] was poor and failed to attract much attention.”
2) “Peter and the Wolf” has the distinction of being recorded dozens of times over the past 100 years, and the list of famous names that have served as narrator is long and illustrious. Just a few of the notable narrators include: Bill Clinton, Sophia Loren, Antonio Banderas, Sharon Stone, Dame Edna Everage, Alice Cooper, Sting, Ben Kingsley, Sir John Gielgud (twice!), Eleanor Roosevelt, Alec Guinness, Boris Karloff, Mia Farrow, Sean Connery, Rob Reiner, David Bowie, and Carol Channing.
3) We have farm machinery to thank for bringing Prokofiev to the US for the first time. It was 1917 when Chicago businessman Cyrus McCormick Jr. went to Russia on business and met the 26-year-old Prokofiev. McCormick had never heard of Prokofiev, but Prokofiev was very familiar with the McCormick name, which was synonymous with farm equipment, as Prokofiev’s father managed a large farm that owned several machines that the McCormicks manufactured. McCormick ultimately recommended Prokofiev to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Prokofiev attended the American debuts of two of his works in December 1918, leading the orchestra during one piece, and playing piano during the other.
The audience loved it, giving Prokofiev an enormous ovation. The reviews suggested a major new (and strange) voice was being heard. One headline read: “Russian Genius Displays Weird Harmonies.” Another critic wrote: “The music was of such savagery, so brutally barbaric, that it seemed almost grotesque to see civilized men, in modern dress with modern instruments performing it. By the same token, it was big, sincere, true.”
4) Sergei Prokofiev was also a very accomplished chess player, and could’ve possibly played professionally. He is one of very few players that beat José Raúl Capablanca, who would go on to be world champion, in a 1914 game. Prokofiev also beat contemporary Maurice Ravel in a chess game, and you can relive their match, move by move, here.
5) Prokofiev’s death was overshadowed by a much more prominent Russian’s death. Prokofiev died, at the age of 61, on March 5, 1953 – the same day as Joseph Stalin. Hordes of mourning people filled Red Square for days, and since Prokofiev lived near the square, the crowds prevented his body from being moved for three days. A leading music periodical, in their next issue, briefly mentioned Prokofiev’s passing on page 116. The first 115 pages were dedicated to Stalin.
Lastly, while you’re driving to Alex Theatre or Royce Hall this weekend for the concert, ruminate on this Prokofiev quote on the role of the composer and the purpose of art:
“In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve Man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it. He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art might consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future. Such is the immutable code of art as I see it.”