Saturday, August 9, 2003

As I read Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, a meticulously detailed, informed, readable biography by British author and critic David Nice (Yale University Press, $35, 390 pages, illus.), I paused from time to time to listen to recordings of the Russian composer’s music. I reveled in that old Prokofiev magic: the once-shocking but now familiar dissonances of the “First Piano Concerto,” the poignant, lovely lyricism of the “First Violin Concerto,” the irresistible, propulsive rhythms of the “Third Piano Concerto,” and the cool “playful wit” of the First (“Classical”) Symphony.

Listening to the music reinforced the impression I have always had about Sergei Prokofiev: His early music is that of a supremely talented brat, a show-off who delights in applying a hot-foot to the critics and the public. As one of his doting, but exasperated, teachers once said, “Prokofiev can’t bear to hear two true notes in succession.”

Prokofiev (1891-1953) was — no surprise here — a musical prodigy (he wrote “The Giant,” an opera, at nine). From age 13, he studied for 10 years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He was a talented, if difficult student, taking what he wanted from his professors, includingRimsky-Korsakov, but for the most part going his own modernist way. He burst upon the musical scene in the 1920s as an enfant terrible, ravenous for fame, exploiting his gift for combining teeth-rattling harmonies, jarring dissonances and jagged rhythms with beautiful, if often bittersweet, melodic lines. His music had the blessing of being accessible to most listeners.

As a man, he was often given to “tactless petulance” and was possessed of an “insolent personality”. Carolina “Lina” Codina, the young singer who would become his wife, did not at first like him because she thought he was “a nasty young man” who liked to inflict heavy doses of “applied sarcasm.” But Prokofiev was also witty, generous with his help, and capable of lasting friendships. Lina married him, they had two sons, and Prokofiev apparently remained faithful to her, despite the temptations brought about by long separations when he was on tour.

It is good clean fun, at a distance of more than 80 years, to laugh at the bone-headed opinions of critics who hated or feared Prokofiev’s then-shocking approaches to traditional musical forms. He was called by some American critics “a musical Bolshevist” [sic]. His “First Piano Concerto” was greeted with a withering blast from a Russian critic: “This energetic, rhythmic, harsh, coarse, primitive cacophony hardly deserves to be called music.”

We laugh at such misjudgments not because we know more about music today, but because we know Prokofiev in a different context, as a classic, perhaps preeminent, composer of the Age of the Modern. Many of his early critics, upset by his innovations, perceived him to be outside the great tradition. In this they were wrong. Despite his penchant for musical shock effects, in structure and feeling his music never made a total break with the past. He was a revolutionary conservative not a conservative revolutionary.

Until 1935, he led a charmed life. In World War I, he avoided the slaughter when he was exempted from military service as the only son of a widow. After the Leninist counter-revolution against the Kerensky government, Prokofiev got permission to leave Russia. He journeyed across Siberia by train, went to Japan and then across the Pacific to the United States where he was greeted warmly by benefactors and some critics. In the 1920s, he became an international super-star composer and pianist, and was lionized in Paris, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York. He knew — and was critical of — everyone from Igor Stravinsky to George Gershwin. But during this generally happy time, there was something big missing in his life: Russia.

From his letters it is apparent Prokofiev knew about the brutal realities of the Soviet police state. But like so many Russian artists, then and now, he felt cut off from something spiritually vital by being away from the motherland. He began to talk of the need for symphonic music to return to simple melodies and traditional harmonies, suited to the tastes and needs of the toiling masses. Although it is not clear as to how much of this fatuous sloganeering he believed, in 1935 he decided to return to Russia, to write music that would meet the requirements of the new proletarian age. This decision was a big mistake, but we will have to wait for Mr. Nice’s second volume, which I look forward to, to find out why.

• • •

Gen. Maurice Rose (1899-1945) led from the front. In North Africa, Sicily, France and Belgium, his tall, strikingly handsome, impeccably-clad figure could always be seen where the action was, at the very tip ofhis “Spearhead” Third Armored Division. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was outnumbered and outgunned. So he decided there was just one thing to do: attack. His daring, almost reckless, move succeeded and he lived to fight another day.

But his days were numbered. March 30, 1945, the day of his death, is the focal point of Major General Maurice Rose: World War II’s Greatest Forgotten Commanderby Steven L. Ossad and Don R. Marsh, with a foreword by Martin Blumenson (Taylor Trade Publishing, $27.95, 432 pages, illus.). Captured at the front, Rose was shot numerous times by a German tank commander. Was it murder? Or was it one of those unfortunate things that happen in “the fog of war”? The authors examine the evidence and reach what I think is a judicious, credible answer.

The authors clearly idolize Gen. Rose. During the Battle of the Bulge his “daring, boldness, guile, and strength of will” emerged and showed him to be “one of the greatest division commanders ever produced by our country.” Hyperbole?Perhaps, but the authors convinced me that the name of Maurice Rose should be remembered along with that of George Patton. To his underlings, Rose was “tough, impatient, terse, and hard to satisfy.” But to friends and critics alike, he was essentially unknowable. In fact one of the few things missing from this fine study of men at war is Rose himself. One of his superiors said Rose was ” … a cool, able soldier, distant, and removed in temperament, and no one could know him well.”

The son and grandson of rabbis, Rose became “the highest-ranking American Jewish officer ever killed in battle.”But in World War I,as a wounded lieutenant, he had declared he was a “Protestant.” When he was killed in 1945, his grave was marked by a cross. A rabbi replaced the cross with a Star of David. A squabble arose concerning Rose’s true faith. In fact it appears he had no religious faith at all. The book is perhaps a little heavy on minute-by-minute details of famous battles, and it is filled with those battle-field diagrams, complete with arrows and dotted lines, that are beloved and understood only by professionals. Rose was brave beyond belief and a born leader. As a man he remains a mystery. Perhaps only the German Army got to know him very well, but only at the point of his spear.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.

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