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Program Notes: Denève Conducts Prokofiev

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019 at 8:00pm

Saturday, February 16, 2019 at 8:00pm

Stéphane Denève, conductor

Yefim Bronfman, piano

St. Louis Symphony Chorus | Amy Kaiser, director


PROKOFIEV/arr. DENÈVE Cinderella Suite

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor

PROKOFIEV Alexander Nevsky

Stéphane Denève on conducting Prokofiev

As told by Tim Munro

As a teenaged pianist, I was attracted to the Russians: Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin. I realized that, while French music was in my blood, Russia was my second musical motherland.

There is a deep-rooted connection between French and Russian culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian aristocracy spoke French. At the beginning of the 20th century, “Franco-Russian modernity” (from Rimsky-Korsakov to Ravel, from Debussy to Stravinsky) shared a taste for shimmering orchestral colors, together with a special appetite for the dance.

Prokofiev is, like Mozart, a man who reveals the child he continued to be. He has a sense of enchantment, a way of building music as if it were made of simple cubes. Some people can draw one line and you recognize an object or a person instantly. He has this rare talent.

This program has both tart and tender elements in it. Funnily enough, I am a big fan of sweet and sour mixed in food, of warm fruits and vegetables put together. I think you always need one to bring out the best in the other.

Prokofiev decided to come back to his country and had to adhere to the “music for the people” philosophy of the Stalin era. Alexander Nevsky andCinderella are “soviet” music in that sense.

Both the film and the score of Alexander Nevsky was met with acclaim.

The demand to write music that would be understandable by the “people” forced Prokofiev to write with a certain “simplicity” and “consonance.” Some of his best music was written with a “populist” intention.

This performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is the first time I will collaborate with Yefim Bronfman. For many years I have been a fan and dreamed of making music with him. It is wonderful that it happens for the first time in St. Louis—I take it as a good sign for our future.

We spent time together last July, choosing a new Steinway for Powell Hall. The piano we chose will be “inaugurated” this weekend, with our first concerto together. Magical!


Cinderella Suite (compiled by Stéphane Denève)

In 1941, Prokofiev’s marriage collapsed. The often-selfish composer demanded much of his wife Lina, and her open defiance led to a break between the two. At the crest of this emotional wave, his life unbearable, Prokofiev escaped into a fairy tale.

The story of Cinderella has been told around the world for 2,000 years. Every culture has its variants—fur-lined slippers, no fairy godmother, brutally severed toes—but the basic story, of unjust abuse and deserved reward, has endured.

Prokofiev’s previous ballet score, Romeo and Juliet, had been considered “undanceable” by authorities. To the despair of its composer, the score was drastically altered. Striving to avoid a repeat of this painful experience, Prokofiev made Cinderella “as danceable as possible”; filling his score with traditional dance forms: a pas de deux, a gavotte, a heaping dose of waltzes.

Prokofiev was drawn to the freedom and playfulness of childhood. He wrote hours of music for young people to play and to listen to. With Cinderella he lets his child-like musical imagination run wild, reaching into every nook of the orchestra to paint characters in bold colors.

Violins sob and sing at Cinderella’s suffering. Winds and brass peck at the repulsive natures of the step sisters. French horns bray with the fairy’s warning. A music-box of high strings, tinkling celeste, and flutes makes magic out of the Prince’s first sight of Cinderella.

Cinderella may also tell a more personal story. Prokofiev’s Prince is famous yet immature and entitled; not unlike the composer himself. Having left his wife Lina and their two young sons, Prokofiev immediately moved in with a much younger woman, the poet Mira Mendelson.

“[In this ballet] I wanted to convey the poetic love between Cinderella and the Prince,” he wrote, “the birth and flowering of that feeling, the obstacles thrown in its path, the realization of the dream.” Did Prokofiev inject a little of his own personal fairy tale? To express joy at having found his own Cinderella?

First Performance: November 21, 1945, Moscow, Yuri Fayer conducting the complete ballet

First SLSO Performance: this week (suite compiled by Stéphane Denève)

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, maracas, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, wood block, xylophone, side drum), harp, piano, celesta, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 25 minutes

Listening guide

Stéphane Denève’s “Suite romantique” mostly follows the story of the Prokofiev’s ballet. The guide below gives a sense of the unfolding story. Denève’s own comments are in quotation marks, and missing story elements are summarized in square brackets.

Introduction. In the house of Cinderella’s father, Cinderella has to do the dirtiest chores. “The ‘Cinderella theme,’ romantic, delicate, and dreamy, immediately introduces the heroine.”

Shawl Dance. Prokofiev saves his most grotesque music for Cinderella’s two stepsisters, who argue over a shawl. Their mother cuts the shawl in two; each sister dances with her half. “It is an authentic little silent film!” [A poor woman asks for money. Cinderella offers her a little piece of bread, Cinderella’s last. The stepmother and her daughters leave for the ball. The woman reappears as a fairy, bringing Cinderella a ball gown, sparkling adornments, and a coach.]

Interrupted departure. The fairy explains that Cinderella must return from the ball before midnight. Prokofiev’s breathless music captures the moment before Cinderella leaves for the ball.

Clock scene.The fairy points to a clock on which 12 gnomes mark the hours and warn of what happens when the clock strikes midnight. Brass and strings forcefully communicate the stakes of this deadline.

Dance of the Prince. The ball begins. “The Prince arrives in all his noble elegance, but showing his dissatisfaction.” Heavy-footed music captures the Prince’s bravado and swagger.

Cinderella’s arrival at the ball. A hush falls over the ball. Cinderella enters. “A diamond-studded dress sparkles with a thousand lights. There is the sensation of a miracle, clearly also felt by the Prince.”

Grand waltz. “In a feeling of amorous drunkenness, with time suspended, the lovers are alone. They look into each other’s eyes, forgetting the world around them.” [Cinderella forgets the fairy’s warning. As the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella rushes away. The prince tries to run after her but finds only her slipper.]

The search. The prince sets out on a search for Cinderella. His agitation and anxiety are expressed by three linked dances: a brass-led “Promenade”; theFirst Galop,” with virtuoso string writing; and the forceful “The Father.” [The Prince enters Cinderella’s house. The two sisters try on the slipper, which does not fit. Cinderella helps her stepmother try to fit her foot into the slipper. While she is helping, the other slipper falls out of her apron pocket.]

Amoroso. Cinderella and the Prince are reunited. “It is a moment of mad love. The most romantic theme in the whole score arrives.”

Cinderella’s departure for the ball. The couple lovingly recalls the first time they met. Here Prokofiev channels the swooning sounds of Tchaikovsky.

Midnight.Thesuitecloseswiththesoundofaclockstrikingmidnight,“asif Cinderella is explaining to the Prince the reason for her departure.” Percussion and piccolo mimic the sound of a mechanical clock.


Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 16

We rewind. To a time before Prokofiev’s return to Russia, before his stint as a world- traveling virtuoso. Before, in fact, he had even graduated from university.

We rewind to 1913, the last summer of calm for “Old Russia.” A boom had brought rapid growth to the wealthy, but at the expense of the poor; strikes crippled the country. Amidst this turmoil, a curious, ambitious composer sought his musical voice.

Prokofiev was trying on many hats: symbolism, acmeism, futurism, realism. Teachers considered him a provocateur, rejecting tradition for “empty” modernity. And he threw his entire toolbox at the Piano Concerto No. 2.

The opening looks back to the sounds and smells of “Old Russia,” as through a misty, nostalgic lens. A piano cadenza of unprecedented length and scope treats the piano like a percussion instrument, which rings like Russian cathedral bells.

With the middle movements comes a jarring swerve. The second could only have been written in the age of the machine, while the third seems to thumb its grotesque nose at Prokofiev’s conservative professors. Then, like a composer in a rush to prove himself, the finale barrels in, a runaway train pushing orchestra and soloist to the brink of collapse.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 was Prokofiev’s biggest orchestral score to date, twice the size of his first concerto. The solo part is a daunting mountain, requiring huge reserves of stamina and virtuosity. But for conservative Russian audiences, the Piano Concerto No. 2 came like a slap in the face. A contemporary wrote of the premiere:

A youth with the face of a high school student appears on stage. This is Prokofiev. He sits down at the piano and starts either wiping off the keys or trying them out to see which ones produce a high or low sound. All this is done with a sharp, dry touch. The audience is uncertain. One couple turns to the exit, saying, “Music like that can drive you crazy!”

First Performance: May 8, 1924, Paris, Serge Koussevitzky conducting with Prokofiev as soloist

First SLSO Performance: October 24, 1959, Edouard van Remoortel conducting with Malcolm Frager as soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: October 3, 2009, David Robertson conducting with Nicolas Hodges as soloist

Scoring: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, snare drum), and strings

Performance Time: approximately 31 minutes


Alexander Nevsky, op. 78

We fast-forward to the 1930s. To a time when Prokofiev was a world-famous musician, living the cosmopolitan artist’s dream: touring the world, his home divided between Paris and Moscow.

But in a tense political atmosphere this life became impossible; Prokofiev was forced to choose: Russia or the West? He was torn. Having never come to terms with the Soviet revolution, he still missed Russia deeply. Eventually he chose home.

Prokofiev moved to Moscow at a dire time; savage purges were leading to the persecution of many colleagues. But Prokofiev knew how to tow the party line. “Our era demands dramatic works,” he wrote. “The subject must be heroic and constructive.”

Among the first of his “heroic and constructive” moves was to write the score for the film Alexander Nevsky in 1938. The film tells the story of the medieval leader Alexander, who held hero status in Russia, defeating the invading Teutonic knights. The story was designed to please Stalin: Russian hero defeats German invaders.

Prokofiev fully threw himself into the challenge of this new genre. He sat in the screening room, tapping out rhythms to the footage. He experimented with recording technology, seeking at times to intentionally distort the sound of his music for dramatic effect.

The film’s now-legendary director, Sergei Eisenstein, was impressed: “[His] music is incredibly plastic; it never becomes mere illustration.” Eisenstein even cut sequences in the film to fit Prokofiev’s music, a mark of respect for the composer.

To capture Alexander Nevsky’s setting, Prokofiev created his own Russian folksongs and medieval church music. For instance, he wrote a crude chant to demonstrate the “emptiness” of the Catholic knights’ religion. It sets a deliberately (and mockingly) nonsensical text: Peregrinus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis (“A stranger—I waited—my feet—on cymbals”).

The film was a hit, so much so that Prokofiev created this cantata, retaining the shape of Nevsky’s original story. Its popular success would help to keep Prokofiev away from the worst of the regime’s purges. But, sadly, many others were not so lucky.

First Performance: May 17, 1939, Prokofiev conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus with Varvara Gagarina as soloist

First SLSO Performance: December 3, 1949, Vladimir Golschmann conducting with Jennie Tourel as soloist and R. Oscar Clymer directing the University of Missouri Choral Union

Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 20, 2010, David Robertson conducting with Elena Manistina as soloist and Amy Kaiser directing the St. Louis Symphony Chorus

Scoring: mezzo-soprano, chorus, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, wood block, maracas, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 36 minutes

Listening guide

This guide aims to give historical context for each of the cantata’s movements. An English translation is also included.

1. Russia under the Mongolian Yoke. [Orchestra] In the early 13th century, a loose Russian federation broke down under pressure from the Mongol Empire. Its remnants were ruled by the Mongolians, whose empire was quadrupling in size under Genghis Khan.

2. Song about Alexander Nevsky. [Orchestra and chorus] The Russians also faced pressures from the northwest. In 1240, Alexander, uniting a coalition of Russian armies, may have defeated Swedish invaders on the Neva river, afterwards becoming known as Alexander “Nevsky” (meaning “of Neva”).

Yes, ‘twas on the River Neva it occurred. On the Neva’s stream, on the waters deep. There we slew our foes’ pick of fighting men, Pick of fighting men, army of the Swedes. Ah, how we did fight, how we routed them! Yes, we smashed their ships of war to kindling wood. In the fight our red blood was freely shed. For our great land, our native Russian land. Where the broad axe swung was an open street, Through their ranks ran a lane where the spear was thrust. We mowed down the Swedes the invading troops, Just like feather grass, grown on desert soil. We shall never yield native Russian land. They who march on us shall be put to death. Rise against the foe, Russian land arise! Rise to arms, arise, great town Novgorod.

3. The Crusaders in Pskov. [Orchestra and chorus] By the early 13th century, the pope- approved Northern Crusades had violently captured modern Latvia and Estonia for the church. In 1242 the Teutonic Knights attempted to move east, into Russian territory.

Peregrinus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis

[This meaningless Latin, drawing words from three Psalms in the Latin Vulgate text, intends to demonstrate the “emptiness” of the crusaders’ religion.]

4. Arise, ye Russian people. [Orchestra and chorus]

Arise to arms, ye Russian folk, in battle just, in fight to death, Arise ye people free and brave, defend our fair, our native land. To living warriors high esteem, immortal fame to warriors slain. For native home, for Russian soil arise ye people, Russian folk.

In our Russia great, in our native Russia no foe shall live. Rise to arms, arise, native motherland. No foe shall march ‘cross Russian land, No foreign troops shall Russia raid. Unseen the ways to Russia are.

No foe shall ravage Russian fields. Arise to arms, ye Russian folk, in battle just, in fight to death, Arise ye people, free and brave, defend our fair, our native land!

5. Battle on the Ice. [Orchestra and chorus] In the early spring of 1242, Alexander’s army defeated the Teutonic Knights on the frozen Lake Peipus. According to legend, the lake’s thin ice was melting in the warming weather. Lured into the center of the lake the crusaders, wearing heavy armor, cracked the ice and fell into the water.

Peregrinus, expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis

(Untranslatable; text is an amalgamation of words from three Psalms found in the Latin Vulgate) Vincant arma! Crucifera hostis pereat! (Let the weapons of the cross-bearers be victorious! Let the enemy perish!)

Peregrinus, expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis, peregrinus, expectavi, pedes meos est

(Untranslatable; text is an amalgamation of words from three Psalms found in the Latin Vulgate)

6. The Field of the Dead. [Orchestra and mezzo-soprano solo]

I shall go across the snow-clad field, I shall fly above the field of death, I shall search for valiant warriors there, Those to me betrothed, stalwart men and staunch. One lies quiet where sabers mangled him, Here lies one impaled by an arrow shaft. From their wounds warm, red blood like the rain was shed on our native soil, on our Russian fields. He, who fell for Russia in noble death, Shall be blest by my kiss on his dead eyes, And to him, brave lad, who remained alive, I shall be a true wife and a loving friend. I’ll not be wed to a handsome man: Earthly charm and beauty fast fade and die, I’ll be wed to the man who’s brave. Hark ye warriors brave, lionhearted men!

7. Alexander’s Entry into Pskov. [Orchestra and chorus] Alexander was a pragmatic politician: after the battle a peace agreement ended the dominance of the Teutonic Knights. Later, envoys signed a historic peace treaty between Russia and Norway, and Alexander again led his army to defeat the Swedes.

In a great campaign Russia went to war, Russia put down the hostile troops; In our native land foes shall never live. Foes who come shall be put to death. Celebrate and sing, native mother Rus! In our native land foes shall never live. Foes shall never see Russian towns and fields. They who march on Rus shall be put to death ! In our Russia great, in our native Russia no foe shall live! Celebrate and sing, native mother Rus!

To a fête in triumph all of Russia came. Celebrate, rejoice, celebrate and sing, Our motherland!

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Creative Partner.


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