Everything is connected – isn’t that so? Whatever we do, it has consequences, big or small, harmless or deadly. Whatever we decide, it affects people around us, positively, negatively. At the end, our life is the sum of our decisions, well-meant, often misguided and mostly overrated as to their importance. A couple of things come together here.
A few weeks before I set out to write this post, I decided to read Don Delillo’s novel “Underworld”. A brilliant, disturbing tale of people searching wisdom, trying to make sense of their life in the midst of the Cold War. Multiple invisible links connect them, the story told backwards gradually reveals them. Delillo’s calm and detached narrating style brutally exposes the absurdity of life. Three elements are important here: a) the fear of a nuclear war b) one of Delillo’s characters is in waste management c) music illustrating a particularly absurd action around an Eisenstein movie: Sergei Prokofiev’s suite “Love for the Three Oranges”, Op. 33bis.
A day before I set out to write this post, I saw “Bladerunner 2049”, a dystopic science-fiction movie focusing on the question of identity, real or virtual, and the question of what defines a human being and sets him apart from a clone, a replicant, a machine. Three elements are important here: a) a future dominated by virtual realities, something we control even less than nuclear energy b) human and material trash is the setting of the movie c) sonic trash is the hallmark of the movies: soundtrack, loud, brutal, dissonant.
Everything is connected: the book I read, the movie I watch, the look back, the look forward, the fear of mankind to confront the absurdity of life. Finally Prokofiev’s music, giving voice to man’s bewilderment when confronted with something he does not understand and even masters. Prokofiev wrote the suite in 1919, after he had composed the opera of the same name (Op. 33). The opera is based on the adaption of an Italian tale involving princes and noblemen, princesses, dark forces (witches) and fools interfering at different levels with the plot to make sure the story reaches a good end.
The “wrong note” style
Prokofiev fought off all attempts to find a deeper meaning in the opera, he claimed he just wanted to write an “amusing piece”. However the music of the opera has a very ironic, even provocative message and the suite delivers the same message in an even more condensed way: the vanity of man’s ambitions, the search for a purpose in life. The biographer Harlow Robinson says the opera “contains some of Prokofiev’s most charming and playful music, in the tradition of his early, naughtily dissonant piano pieces” and he enumerates the different techniques: jerky rhythms, conflicting tonalities, mischievous intervals of seconds and tritones epitomizing the composer’s “wrong note” style.
By taking up the genre of the opera and embedding it in an evolving understanding of harmony and composition, Prokofiev rescued in a way the Russian opera. While Igor Stravinsky saw it as a moribund art and focussed with Sergei Diaghilev on modern ballets, foreshadowing modern dance as it would rise after World War II in Germany under Pina Bausch, Prokofiev was unwilling to throw it “overboard from the ship of modernity” and insisted on revitalizing the genre. And as Dmitry Shostakovich was to show later, the dramatic element conferred by the human voice, showed how powerful an impression a contemporary opera can make.
Delightfully stimulating – the book, the movie, Prokofiev’s music. The opera “Love of the Three Oranges” has been recorded by Kirov Opera Chorus and he Kirov Orchestra, the suite by the London Symphony Orchestra.
© Charles Thibo