The monument around which I’ve constructed my upcoming recital is Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 1 in F. Left to my own devices, I would have chosen Faure, but my pianist at the time wanted this brooding, creepy Prokofiev. Being, for the most part, on the ethereal side of the music spectrum, I knew it was going to be a stretch, but I like to keep my pianists happy and I dove in. Saying I underestimated the piece would be an incomplete description of what actually transpired: I got in a roller coaster car, it took off before I was buckled in, no-one was controlling the ride and the rickety tracks were missing slats.
I think Prokofiev would approve … even he told Oborin during a rehearsal for the premiere “It should sound in such a way that people should jump in their seat, and people will say ‘Is he out of his mind?’” Before I knew it, I’d thrust myself headlong into the dark side. Truthfully, while I admired the composition, I couldn’t connect to the composer. This angular, somewhat militaristic style in a rhythmic straitjacket but still leaking all over the place in hysteria?
For the last two weeks I’ve been lost in the Winter Palace, Faberge eggs, memories of my Russian violin teacher and stories of her teacher David Oistrakh, and it happened … I found the magic of Prokofiev. Rather than a treatise on the way fairy tale folklore erupts into a serious Baba Yaga chicken leg hut in this work, maybe I’ll relate my thoughts in a fairy-tale of my own:
Once upon a time there lived an honest farmer with a wife, two daughters and a son. One day a man arrived at their cottage door asking lodging for his horse and shelter from the winter storm chasing at his heels. The family kindly obliged, the daughters feeding him wheat bread from wheat grown in their father’s field. That night as the winds howled, the daughters argued over who would win the handsome stranger’s heart, but in the wind another ear was listening.
The next morning while the stranger and father were attending to the horse, an old woman arrived, treading over the freshly fallen snow asking for bread. When the first daughter apologized, having given all their bread to the handsome stranger the night before, the woman flew into a rage striking the girl with a broom and turning her into dust. Terrified, the second daughter began making bread for the old woman, but as the old woman grew impatient, she offered the second daughter an elixir promising to win the handsome stranger’s heart. Not wanting to enrage the old woman, and eager to believe the promise of the elixir, the second daughter quickly drank the poison-filled bottle and turned to dust. The young son had just arisen and was watching from the stairwell as the woman hurriedly swept up the dust of his sisters and left the house.
Alarmed, the boy quickly ran to find his father. When the man, astride his horse, heard the news, he was greatly troubled, for this was the Tsar who had been looking for a bride. Eager to save his kingdom from the destruction of an invading army, he struck a bargain with an old woman living in a hut standing on chicken legs deep in the forest. For the price of his golden drawing room, to be used at her leisure, she enchanted the forest to swallow the invading army and the Tsar’s kingdom was saved … but there was a catch. To save his kingdom from future threats, the Tsar could never marry. The old woman swore in her wrath “the day you marry you will lose your kingdom.” Sad and alone with no hope for an heir, the Tsar thought “surely she meant a bride of noble birth” and set out to find a commoner until he happened upon the farmer and his daughters.
Distraught with agonizing grief at the news of his loss, the father clutched his chest and died at the Tsar’s feet, leaving the boy and his mother alone. In bitter remorse, the Tsar gave the boy a parting gift of an iridescent red feather, and promised to make the boy Tsar one day in repayment of his debt to the family. “Come to the Winter Palace when you have passed the age of twelve, present me with this feather and I shall surely make you my heir” he said, riding off into the snow, his pack full of the second daughter’s bread.
As the boy went to show his mother the feather, the feather burst into flames, burning his hands and turning to ashes falling onto the snow. In desperation, the boy thrust his hands into the snow grasping for the ashes and glancing at the old woman tramping across the fields. Though swollen, there was definitely something different about the boy’s hands as they healed. The feather, while burning them, had also gifted them with an enchantment. With deftness, his fingers created such music, it cast a spell over all who listened, keeping them from moving or speaking until he lifted his fingers from the keys. Determined to remind the Tsar of his promise with or without the feather, the boy and his mother made the long voyage to the Winter Palace to see the Tsar.
In the long years following the meeting with the family, the old woman had never once visited the gold drawing room and the Tsar forgot his promise to the boy, marrying a bride from a distant land. When the young man arrived at the Winter Palace, he was not allowed entrance. He was forced to wander the streets of the city looking for lodging. In tears, the boy fell to his knees with his hands in the snow. Just then, he heard music coming from an upper window. Following the music, he found an empty room with a piano and began to play. The people of the city were so entranced by his music, they began coming to see the young master perform until everyone in the city had heard the young man. The news of this wonderful music reached even the Tsar, but he would not set foot outside the Winter Palace for fear of leaving the golden drawing room.
News of an invading army rumbled through the streets and as the boy and his mother readied themselves to leave, the Tsar asked the young man to come to the Winter Palace to demonstrate his remarkable gift. As before, when the music filled the golden drawing room, all who heard the music could neither speak nor move until the young man lifted his fingers from the keys. Eager to use the young man’s talent to thwart the threat of an invasion, the Tsar began inviting the young man to give concerts at the Winter Palace. As the young man’s fame and talent grew, news reached even deep inside the forest where an old woman sat in her hut. Curious and remembering her bargain, she set off for the Winter Palace to hear the young man in the golden drawing room. Disguised as a gentleman with a gnarly beard and deep eyes, the old woman went to spy on the Tsar and hear the music.
The Tsar had indeed produced an heir, but whereas the young man possessed the power of the feather, the boy heir was sickly. The old woman struck yet another bargain, this time with the Tsarina. In return for healing the heir, the old woman required the Tsarina to banish the young man from the Winter Palace. The Tsar never related the tale of the feather, the boy or his sisters to the Tsarina and she had no reason to argue with the old woman, so she accepted and secretly sent her guards to remove the young man and his mother from the city.
In tears, the young man begged the guards to let him stay, but they pushed him down, and he broke his fall with his hands in the snow. The next day, the palace was overrun, the Tsar and his family never to be heard from again. The old woman, tired and perturbed by the Tsar’s defiance and his gold drawing room, retreated to her forest hut.
The young man was now in want of a wife. With the Winter Palace and the promise of becoming heir vanished, he set off for a distant land. He married and gained favor with the nobility, enjoying the continuing influence of his spellbinding gift. Years passed, but, a Tsar’s promise is a binding one, even if he is no longer alive to uphold it, and the Winter Palace came calling once more, welcoming the young man back.
As he stepped into the golden drawing room, the not-so-young-anymore man felt quite at home at the familiar instrument though much had changed. The new owner knew nothing of Tsars or old women or enchanted feathers, but only farmers and wheat. Filling himself with the bread of the land was his only desire. Golden drawing rooms and music had little merit unless they filled the land with more wheat. Realizing the irony of having left the land to pursue the promise of a Tsar only now to be faced with losing them both caused the man deep sorrow and on his way out of the Winter Palace, he stumbled in tears, hands and knees into the snow.
From that moment, his sorrow created greater music than ever before and with each finished composition something wonderful began to take shape on the piano—ash by precious ash, the feather began to materialize once more. Though his music was more brilliant than a gold drawing room, more powerful than a Tsar in a palace, with each new barb in the vane of the feather, the man began to lose his voice. Still, he worked on, pouring every loss into each note until one day he fell over and found with the magic of the feather growing, he could neither speak nor move …
The new owner of the Winter Palace, with his heart set on the bread of the land, filled himself until he could eat no more and died. On that very day, the feather was complete and the once young boy never moved or spoke again.
But, the Firebird, whose feather it was, had been looking for her lost feather. When she found the once young boy, she grasped him in her talons, flying him back to the Winter Palace and gently carrying him into the gold drawing room. Then, her iridescent red and orange feathers alight with pulsating vibrance and resting on his heart, she burst into flames, leaving his music to live forever.
For those who drew parallels to Prokofiev’s own life story, know I took complete creative license because this is, after all, a fairy tale … and what are we anyway as musicians, if we are not, in the end, storytellers.