Monday, May 12, 2008

Prokofiev's literary gifts

The murder of Rasputin, by coincidence, is one of many and varied incidents written about by the composer Serge Prokofiev in his diaries, the second volume of which (1915-1922) has just been published in Britain. The diaries, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips, are getting a reasonable press. The Times calls them ‘compelling reading, and not only for musical historians’; and Phillips’ translation is described as ‘masterly’. However, the New Statesman ‘can't help but wish in places that [Phillips had] adopted a rather harsher editorial approach’ because ‘in the later diaries, the composer's lapidary prose fails to enliven interminable descriptions of parties, romantic indecisiveness and suchlike’.

The publisher, Faber&Faber, says: ‘Taken as a whole, the Diaries represent an inexhaustibly rich portrait of one of the most vibrant periods in the whole of Western art, peopled by virtually every musician and artist of note. They constitute both an indispensable and an entertaining source of reference for all scholars and lovers of Prokofiev’s music.’ Generously, the publisher’s website makes available the full text of Phillips’ introduction.

The diaries were published in Russia some time ago - see the excellent Sergey Prokofiev Foundation website. Available on this website are extensive extracts, in English, from the third volume (1923-1933, yet to be published in English) along with many photographs. There is also the text of an interview with Phillips, and comments by literary and academic figures. For example, Natalia Savkina, an associate professor of history at the Moscow Conservatory, comments on the diaries as follows: ‘I am convinced that Prokofiev's literary gift was equal to his talent as a musician. As a result, we obtain a book in which Prokofiev the writer is challenging Prokofiev the musician.’

When the first volume of Prokofiev's diaries (1907-194) were published in English in 2006 it sparked a mini-debate about whether a composer's autobiographical material was really relevant to his/her music. Oliver Kamm gave the subject a good airing, focusing on the fallacy of assuming that the works and the composer's intentions for the works were equivalent.

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