Are you familiar with the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus? Father and son were held prisoner on the island of Crete and since Crete’s ruler, King Minos, controlled the land and sea routes, Daedalus built artificial wings for himself and his son in order to flee. Before take-off, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, because the sun would melt the wax that held the wings together, nor too low, because the sea foam would soak the feathers. Once in the air, Icarus, exhilarated by the experience of flying, forgot his father’s warning and soared higher and higher. The heat of the sun melt the wax, the wings fell apart and Icarus drowned in the Aegean Sea.
Whenever I hear the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, I must think of Icarus and his fate. You can fly, but respect your limits. If you trespass a certain red line, you will meet a tragic end. Prokofiev would learn this lesson too. While he stayed outside the Russian Empire and the newly born Soviet Union, he could explore any compositional fantasy he wanted. After his return to the Soviet Union, the limits were set by the official cultural doctrine of “Socialist Realism”.
Old world meets new world
Prokofiev started to put to paper the first sketches for his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1913, he revisited those sketches in 1916/17, interrupted the work again. He finished the score in 1921; the premiere took place on 16 December 1921 in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the composer playing the solo part. The recording I have explored has been produced by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, and the pianist Evgeny Kissin.
The piece illustrates the new roads that Russian and French composers were taking: the influence of French Impressionism in painting and the idea of “luminous” music fixing a momentarily impression or emotion, the influence of American jazz music, the lessons learnt from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, an overall modern touch, embracing atonality, broken melodies, overcoming the traditional sonata form.
White keys only
Laurel Fay, author of a riveting biography of Dmitry Shostatkovich, explains that “in 1916-17 [Prokofiev] had toyed with the idea of writing a ‘white-key’ string quartet, music that can be played using only the white keys on the piano. Two themes for the finale of his concerto were retrieved from this project.” She praises “the powers of invention and the felicitous balance of signature elements of Prokofiev’s style – irrepressible rhythmic energy, a steely percussive edge, flashes of impish wit, a vivid orchestral palette, and a warm lyrical impulse.” Every bar exudes the feeling that the world belongs to the youth.
While Prokofiev was about to finish the concerto in his summer residence in Brittany, he socialized with the Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942), who stayed nearby. After he had introduced the writer to his concerto, Balmont wrote these lines:
Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,
In you, the orchestra yearned for resonant summer
And the invincible Scythian strikes the tambourine of the sun.
© Charles Thibo