April 15, 2009

Prokofiev and Schoenberg

The curse of mental associations: When I listen to Prokofiev I always feel sorry for poor Schoenberg. Both were modernists who had scandal-causing premieres in their early days, both composed into the early 1950s (when they died within 2 years of each other), yet Prokofiev departed this world as a composer with a wide public following and many recordings of his works, while Schoenberg remained the rarely performed (and rarely recorded) Bogeyman of serious music long after this death.
     It is tempting to try to explain this disparity (at least in part) by noting that Prokofiev, unlike Schoenberg, never abandoned tonality. But this explanation never made sense to me because tonal music can be far more jarringly dissonant and abrasive than atonal or serial music. I am still mildly startled by the Andante of Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto, where the opening theme jumps from the initial orchestral statement in E minor to the piano restatement of that theme in B-flat major (without any wandering through intermediate keys) . The effect of this "wrong key" modulation still feels more jolting to my ears than any "wrong note" effect in Schoenberg's gentle, even wistful 12-tone piano concerto. Yet at the time when Prokofiev 3rd already had several recordings on major labels, the great Stokowski reportedly had to pay the soloist's fee to have the Schoenberg concerto performed with the NBC symphony (and, as a result, effectively put an end to his future appearances with the orchestra).

Poor Arnold ...

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