While I will always love his 5th & 6th symphonies, the 2nd & 3rd piano concerti, and his piano sonatas, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is not my very favorite composer. There are large swaths of his oeuvre that frankly leave me cold, and while very gifted, the quality of his work was very inconsistent throughout his career. Having read a number of books on Dmitri Shostakovich, and having appreciated Harlow Robinson's liner notes for the Shostakovich quartet cycle on the Essay label, I decided to give this book a chance. I have now "flown" through it twice, and can confidently say this is one of the best-researched, well-written, and downright most-fascinating biographies I have ever read.
Readers looking for a fawning hagiography are advised to look elsewhere. While Robinson focuses on the composer's work (with a special emphasis on the operas), there is no effort to whitewash his self-centeredness and very difficult personality. Stories of Prokofiev's coldness and cruelty are legion. One wonders how he would have fared in today's world with the same talents, but having to continually toe the line of political correctness and "market" himself. Prokofiev, while he mellowed in his later years, simply did not care what other people thought, and was not shy about saying what was on his mind. Paradoxically, he worked all his life to appease those who commissioned works from him, to say nothing of the powers that be in Soviet Russia. Robinson devotes much discussion to the ideological attacks of Stalin and Zhdanov in early 1948, after the composer's health was already in decline. Prokofiev's response, he writes, was "neither a complete apology, nor a statement of indignant rebellion." Obsessed with his music, Prokofiev was apolitical and mostly indifferent to what was going on around him during those historically significant times. Robinson quotes the composer Alfred Schnittke on Prokofiev: "He attempted to overcome the apocalyptic break in 20th century history with the cold composure of an athlete; it was as if he did not hear and did not see the approach of a destructive slaughter unprecendented in history."
This biography is quite a page-turner and moves very quickly without bogging down in technical jargon or historical minutiae. Robinson does an outstanding job in presenting the facts, telling the story, and keeping personal conjecture out. He expects his readers to have a working understanding of the times, eras, and personages involved, and in analyzing Prokofiev's works, he makes fair and accurate observations without descending into self-impressed pedagogy. Originally issued in 1987 and now reissued in 2002, this updated version can truly be described as definitive, an agenda-free treasure among composer biographies. Highly recommended.