NEW! Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound Post 1

Today marks the launch of my new feature blog, Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound. Every Thursday I’ll post a short piano-performance video, along with commentary about the piece and composer, and (sometimes) a storytelling thought-exercise to go with the music. Take ten minutes, enjoy some music, and refresh your mind. If you like today’s post, please SUBSCRIBE (the button on the right), SHARE, and invite others to come check it out!

Today’s feature: Sergei Prokofiev’s Tales of the Old Grandmother, Op. 31, second movement

About the music:

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was the artist who got away, but then went back.

He was born before Russia’s Communist Revolution and lived to see it happen. We often put him in the company of two of Russia’s other great 20th-century composers: Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich. Stravinsky left Russia and never looked back, spending the rest of his life in Switzerland, France, and finally the US. Shostakovich, on the other hand, never left, growing up during the Revolution period and spending his adult life under Stalin’s regime.

But Prokofiev was the one who – for a while – got out. After the Revolution, he spent time in Europe and the US, before choosing to return to his homeland. Unfortunately, the fact that he had spent time in the West automatically made him suspect to Josef Stalin, Soviet Russia’s emphatically paranoid and xenophobic leader. Prokofiev spent the last decade and more of his life caught in a strange duality: he was an internationally recognized musician who “belonged” to Communist Russia and could be held up as an example of the brilliance of Soviet art, but at the same time, he was potentially dangerous, an enemy waiting to be exposed.

Prokofiev’s birth and death dates put him in the category of 20th-century composers, but his style looks back toward the 19th century and the Romantic era in music history. The Romantic era, which dates from about 1825 to 1900, was a period in which composers dove into personal expression in their writing. Some composers, like Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin, often wrote passionate, showy music, demanding great physical strength and technical skill from performers and, in turn, showcasing those performers as heroic figures. Other composers, like Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, favored a more subdued, introverted style, highlighting intimacy rather than outward drama.

Prokofiev’s writing shows the influences of both sides of the Romantic spectrum. In Tales of the Old Grandmother, we focus on the intimate and understated. Many of Prokofiev’s pieces for solo piano are more in line with the Liszt-Chopin style, but here, we see music written in miniature. The Tales are made up of four movements, four separate sections, each only a couple of minutes long. There’s no outward virtuosity here. Instead, Prokofiev writes simple, spare melodies and gently sad harmonies, calling the audience to come close and listen carefully.

Prokofiev also inherited another idea from the generation of composers before him: an idea called Romantic Nationalism. Many 19th-century composers had a specific goal to capture, in their writing, the specific flavor and character of their home countries. In the 19th century, a group of Russian composers, already getting concerned about Western influence in Russian art, took it as their duty to preserve Russian traditions and harmonies in their writing. They harked back to an older Russian style in their work, using ideas that belonged to the music of the Orthodox Church, going back to their roots in order to keep their music purely Russian.

Prokofiev’s Tales bring this idea in also: folklore, storytelling, going back to the roots. The intimacy of the writing says that we need to listen closely, we need to hear and remember these stories about an older time. If we don’t pay attention, that time will be forgotten and lost.

The second movement is my favorite part of the Tales, but I’d encourage you to find and listen to the whole thing. (I might need to record all of it for a later post as well.) Let the simplicity and sadness of it take you.

Thought exercise:

Prokofiev tells us that this piece is meant to be, or represent, a story, but he doesn’t tell us anything about the narrative itself: who the characters are, what is happening to them, how the situation will resolve. Take this short piece as an inspiration and let it suggest ideas to you. What story is being told here? Translate the music into words.

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