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19 minutes reading time (3874 words)

Prokofiev's Music for Children, Op. 65

​When Sergei Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union to live after many years in the West, many were surprised; and he was probably even more surprised himself when his compositional style was soon publicly attacked and condemned by the Soviet government and press. Newly released documents are giving greater insight into the life, struggles, and music of this fascinating and complex musician.

With his concertos, sonatas, and other short pieces, many consider him to be the most important piano composer of the twentieth century. While his Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet are favorites in the orchestral repertoire, the driving rhythms and dissonant harmonies so common to his piano style make this music more difficult for the general public to easily love and accept.

Ruth Burnham introduces readers to Prokofiev's Opus 65 Musique d'enfants (Music for Children), a collection of twelve short pieces for intermediate piano students, showing where it falls in his life and works. This attractive and unjustly neglected set is an excellent introduction to this important composer's music and style. The opus is available in editions by G. Schirmer and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Dover collection: Sergei Prokofiev: Sarcasms, Visions Fugitives and other Short Works.

Ingenious pedagogue                                                                                     by Ruth Burnham

​In 1914, when Sergei Prokofiev concluded his conservatory training and embarked upon a career of concertizing and composing, no one would have predicted an affinity for writing music for children. A "brilliant but unruly" student, "decadent" composer, and audacious performer who consciously strove to "bedazzle and shock" audiences,1 Prokofiev seemed destined for the virtuosic and ultramodern. Indeed, even today, when one thinks of Prokofiev's piano music, terms like "percussive," "athletic," and "hard-edged" come to mind. Yet, midway through his career, having achieved fame as a pianist and as a composer of demanding piano music, in a moment of apparent peripeteia, he wrote Musique d'enfants, a set of twelve pieces for children. Not only do these works form a delightful suite from a pedagogical standpoint, but they also provide a means of teaching many aspects of musicianship. Prokofiev, who never taught, gave no indication that these were to be used as teaching pieces, but they could not be more effective had someone trained in educational theory composed them. However, Musique d 'enfants seldom appears in piano curricula, and it is barely mentioned in the many volumes discussing Prokofiev's life and music. It seems to have been dismissed as an anomaly among the piano works of a composer known for bedazzling effects and shocking dissonances. A deeper look at Prokofiev's life suggests that Musique d'enfants is what one might have expected from him.

​Childhood and early musical training

Prokofiev's affinity for children's music may be a result of his own happy childhood. Harlow Robinson, Prokofiev's best- known English-language biographer, poignantly observes, "To Prokofiev, childhood was a state of mind. Long after his own idyllic boyhood, he continued to love children for their unfettered imagination, sense of play and ability to dissimulate." In fact, Prokofiev's autobiography, a lengthy work written between 1935 and 1951, covers only the first eighteen years of his life.

Prokofiev was born in 1891 to parents who desperately wanted a child.3 His father managed a large Ukrainian country estate, Sontsovka, where young Sergei was the darling not only of his parents, but also of the villagers and people in his father's employ. Prokofiev recalls the daily events of childhood with warmth and humor, and his autobiography is filled with descriptions of such antics as spitting on the bald, shiny head of a friend of his father, then, with great seriousness, spreading the saliva about as though waxing a piece of furniture.4

He also describes his early musical train- ing from his mother, an amateur pianist. Prokofiev notes, "Mother had pedagogical talent. Unobtrusively, she guided me and explained how to use the instrument."5  Prokofiev began to display great musical aptitude at age four. When his mother would seat herself at the piano to play Czerny and Hanon, he sat beside her, and she would allow him to play along on the top two octaves. He recalls, "This might seem a rather barbarous ensemble at first glance. But her thinking proved to be correct: I was soon sitting at the piano by myself, trying to pick out a tune."6 At this point in his musical development, he would create tunes at the keyboard, jotting down notes that meant nothing, announcing to his mother one day that he had just composed Liszt's "Rhapsody." His mother took this opportunity to explain composition and the relationship between notes on a page and tunes on the keyboard. She transcribed his first composition, "Indian Galop," when he was five.7 During the next two years, Prokofiev composed several more piano pieces, including a duet, a significant accomplishment since he had to imagine how the two parts would sound together. With genuine fondness, he tells of an aunt, who "enraptured by her young nephew's accomplishments," took all his compositions to St. Petersburg, hired a professional copyist to transcribe them, and had them bound in an album labeled in gold, "Compositions of Serezhenka Prokofiev." Prokofiev still had that album (and several subsequent ones) when he was completing his autobiography forty years later.He also cites his mother's natural ability as a teacher with great respect. Because she wanted to nurture his interest in music, not turn it into drudgery, she limited his practice time, spending more time on music than exercises ("an excellent approach, and one that all mamas should remember," quips Prokofiev). She sought out a large, varied repertoire, and discussed music seriously with her son, asking him what he preferred and why, thereby helping him develop independent judgment.9 Maria Grigoryevna Prokofieva must have been remarkable.

​St. Petersburg Conservatory years

By nine, Prokofiev was writing an opera, and his parents determined he needed more formal training. His mother arranged for the young Reinhold Glière to tutor Prokofiev at Sontsovka during the summers of 1902 and 1903. The following year, (age thirteen) at the urging of Alexander Glazunov, Prokofiev applied, and was admitted, to the St. Petersburg Conservatory.10 ​His years there shaped Prokofiev's style, fostered his reputation, and assured his success. They also contributed to assumptions still made about Prokofiev being an abrasive person who wrote abrasive music. Accustomed to the creative freedom he had experienced at Sontsovka, Prokofiev chafed at the Conservatory's rigidity. His professors, Nikolay Rimsky- Korsakov, Anatol Lyadov, and Glazunov, disapproved of the modern musical tendencies that so attracted Prokofiev, and he refused to compromise his ideals to ingratiate himself to them.11​ Prokofiev's talent, however, was indisputable. He was soon performing his own compositions at Evenings of Contemporary Music, a series initiated by musicians eager to promote new music. His first performance in 1908 was a stunning success. Critics described his music as "wild unbridled fantasy," his playing as "superb," and Prokofiev himself as "a courageous young composer."12 He furthered his reputation as Russia's enfant terrible by entering the conservatory's Rubinstein Competition, and, flouting its requirement to play a classical style concerto, substituted instead his own first piano concerto. He surmised, "While I might not be able to compete successfully in a performance of a classical concerto, there was a chance that my own might impress the examiners by its novelty of technique; they simply would not be able to judge whether I was playing it well or not."13​ His gamble paid off. He won the competition and when he graduated in 1914, he was already established as one of Russia's preeminent composers and performers.

​Paris years and return to the Soviet Union

​The details of Prokofiev's adult life are better known. After nine years of traveling, touring, and impressing audiences with his playing and compositions, he and his new wife, Lina, settled in Paris. During their fourteen years there, Prokofiev associated with members of the artistic community, including Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Les Six. He and Lina had two sons, and Prokofiev brought his mother to live with them, his father having died in 1910.​ Although he was constantly working, Prokofiev felt underappreciated in Paris and yearned for his homeland. After a series of return trips to what was then the Soviet Union, Prokofiev succumbed to the government's promises of comfortable housing, artistic freedom, and permission to travel, and he moved his family to Moscow in 1936. His final years were spent in the shadow of Stalin's terror, during which his truly great works, like the three "War Sonatas" for piano, were banned, while pieces written at Stalin's behest ("Hail to Stalin," for example) were dismissed as "celebratory...with at least one good tune."14 A severe fall in 1944 initiated Prokofiev's physical decline—a decline that matched the debilitating effect of Stalinism on his music. Toward the end of his life when anyone inquired about his health, his despondent response was, "My soul hurts."15​ His death on March 5, 1953, went nearly unnoticed, for, ironically, Joseph Stalin had died the same day.

​Prokofiev's piano music

​Prokofiev's piano music follows a course similar to that of his life and is typically divided into three periods: the Russian period (1891-1917), the foreign period (1918-1935), and the Soviet period (1936- 1953).16 A look at the solo piano music from each period reveals the development of the characteristics that Prokofiev used to describe his own compositional style. Prokofiev's output during his early Russian period includes six sets of pieces, many with programmatic titles such as "Sarcasms" and "Diabolical Suggestion," his first four sonatas, and his famous Toccata.17 

Elements of Prokofiev's style

In general, the pieces are percussive and dissonant, and establish Prokofiev's harmonic language. Though his music is tonal and employs functional harmony, Prokofiev creates new, often dissonant, effects by using added tones, neighbor chords, unexpected modulations, and chromaticism, all of which he characterizes as his innovation principle. The composer Sergei Taneyev once accused Prokofiev of "much too simple" harmony, a comment that prompted the latter to experiment. Prokofiev wrote, "At first it led to a search for harmonies to suit my own language, and later to a search for a language to express strong emotions."18​ His melodies employ similar devices, and he often achieves humorous effects, what many refer to as "grotesquery," through the insertion of "wrong" notes. Prokofiev objected to that term and said, "In referring to my​ work, I would prefer to use scherzando, meaning simply an effort to express a joke, laughter, or mockery." He did not see this as a separate characteristic but, rather, as a "sideline" of the other four.19​ Textures in the works of this period tend to lie between counterpoint and homophony, with middle voices supplying counterpoint to soprano melody and bass harmony,20​ while rhythm and meter exhibit an aggressive motoric drive that Prokofiev termed his toccata principle​.21​ Overall, these pieces require superb, even virtuosic technique, and they are vigorous, spirited and youthful. 

Prokofiev's foreign period includes several more sets (among them, Musique d'enfants), two sonatinas, and one sonata. These works reflect what Prokofiev considered the classical principle of his compositional style "born in my childhood when I heard my mother play Beethoven sonatas,"22 while intimations of bitonality and impressionistic layering suggest his Parisian environment. Rhythms are less aggressive, and melodies are more lyrical, a quality that Prokofiev valued. "For a long time, my critics denied me any lyricism," he reflected, "and without any encouragement it developed very slowly. But later I paid more attention to it."23​ The music of this period shows Prokofiev's growth as a composer. Its complexity resides not so much in technical demands as in its texture, while remaining pure Prokofiev. The composer was clearly aware of the many styles around him, yet did not stray far from the path he had marked out early in Russia.

​The Soviet period 

​The piano music of Prokofiev's Soviet period could almost serve as a metaphor for the return to his homeland, for, whether due to intrinsic motivation or to coercion, he relinquishes any attempt to join the avant-garde, eschews the foreign influences of the preceding years, and embraces the characteristics of his Russian period works. The last four piano sonatas (which aside from piano transcriptions of many of his operas, ballets, and orchestral works are the only solo piano works of this period) exhibit amusing, angular melodies; aggressive, driving rhythms; virtuosic technical demands; and the harmonic language established early in his career. These sonatas are his most profound, yet though Prokofiev employed his resources to greater effect than in his youth, the sonatas' vitality and spirit mark a return to the aesthetic of his early Russian years.24

​Musique d'enfants ​(Music for Children) 

​That Prokofiev's compositional style changed little suggests, perhaps, that psychologically he had never really left Russia. Musique d'enfants was written in the Soviet Union. In 1935, as part of an effort to lure the internationally known Prokofiev back to the U.S.S.R., the Bolshoi Theater commissioned Romeo and Juliet, and he was invited to spend the summer at Polevno, a resort for Bolshoi employees. Polevno's pastoral country setting may have reminded Prokofiev of Sontsovka. He spent a great deal of time outdoors, swimming, walking, and, possibly, reminiscing. He may have also internalized that aspect of Soviet ideology upholding children as the most significant arts audience in that they represent the future.25​ What is certain is that, as he contemplated his return home, he was able to recapture the childhood that made a return so alluring, infusing Musique d'enfants with an inescapable genuineness.

Prokofiev's propensity for children's music can be seen throughout his oeuvre. Many of his operas and ballets, Love for Three Oranges and Cinderella, for example, are based on fairy tales. Peter and the Wolf is proof that he never lost his sense of how children view the world. He knew instinctively that to be successful, music for children must be "simple, unexpected, and pictorial."26​ Yet Musique d'enfants possesses far more than aesthetic appeal.​ Prokofiev must have inherited his mother's pedagogical talent, for, from a piano teacher's perspective, these pieces are ideal for teaching very specific aspects of musicianship, as well as of Prokofiev's own style. The titles of each of the twelve pieces in this set reflect Prokofiev's rural upbringing and, in certain ways, the archetypal world of a child's summer day: "Morning," "Promenade," "Fairy Tale," "Tarantella," "Regrets," "Waltz," "Parade of the Grasshoppers," "Rain and the Rainbow," "Tag," "March," "Evening," and "Moonlit Meadows."

​Note-reading skills

​Students' note-reading abilities will be challenged by Prokofiev's use of ledger lines, especially in "Morning," "Fairy Tale," "Rain and the Rainbow," and "Tag." Excerpt 1 shows the challenge offered in "Tag" of chords written on ledger lines.27 Prokofiev's frequent change of register, both through the use of octave indicators in "Waltz," "Tag," and "March," and clef signs in nine of the twelve pieces, occurs often enough to ensure that students accurately visualize the notes (see Excerpt 1).

​Descriptive terms, accent marks, and grace notes

At this level of piano study, most students are used to seeing terms such as allegro, andante, and largo. Prokofiev introduces terms that may be new to students and are especially descriptive, such as tranquillo, gravemente, dolce, cantabile, and teneroso. In addition to introducing new vocabulary, these pieces introduce new symbols for accents. Several of the works employ the agogic accent (indicated – , and giving the note a longer duration than normal) as well as the dynamic accent >. Because piano students often confuse the two, Prokofiev's use of these accents in pieces that convey their meaning is especially brilliant. In "Regrets," he employs the agogic accent (–) to help generate the tentative, reluctant mood the title suggests, while in "Tag," the dynamic accent (>) very literally suggests, "You're it!"

Grace notes are an easy way to introduce students to the concept of ornaments, and Prokofiev employs them winningly in "March" and "Moonlit Meadows," as he uses the grace note for entirely different effects in each piece. Half-step grace notes impart a crisp dissonance, as one would expect, in "March" (see Excerpt 2), while in "Moonlit Meadows," infrequent, languid whole steps dreamily precede a more alert scalar repeat.

​Harmonic concepts

Students able to play Musique d'enfants are likely to be studying theory, and Prokofiev provides direct reinforcement of the basic concepts of chords and cadences in the keys of C major ("Morning"), D minor ("Regrets"), and F major ("Evening"). In these pieces, I, IV, and V chords appear in root position and are also broken and inverted. In "Promenade," "Tarantella," "Parade of the Grasshoppers," and "Moonlit Meadows," Prokofiev changes key two or three times, giving students opportunities to adapt their note-reading to different key signatures, and offering teachers opportunities to discuss key relationships. Moreover, six of the pieces end in a V-I cadence, helping young musicians recognize both aurally and visually this significant harmonic concept.

​Balance of melody and accompaniment 

​In "Fairy Tale" and "Moonlit Meadows," the melody alternates between the right and left hands, while in "Tag," it is treated contrapuntally. In all three cases, students must learn to distinguish and project the melody line above its varied accompaniments.

Rhythmic complexity 

Prokofiev's works are notable for their rhythmic vitality, and Musique d'enfants is no exception. "Promenade" employs triplets, placing them in the middle of bars, which makes hearing and counting them relatively easy (see Excerpt 3). He also uses dotted rhythms in "Fairy Tale," "Tarantella," "Parade of the Grasshoppers," and "March." "Fairy Tale" uses changing meters of 3/4 and 2/4.

​Importantly, ​Musique d'enfants ​provides an early introduction to Prokofiev's style, the characteristics he termed his innovative, classical, toccata, lyrical, and scherzando principles. Unexpected, even dissonant harmonies, such as the minor seconds in "Promenade" (see Excerpt 4), display Prokofiev's innovative principal, his trademark harmonic language, while the use of traditional forms, clear structure, and clarity of texture exemplify his classical principle. Not surprisingly, the toccata principle dominates "Tarantella" and "Tag," while lyricism is evident in "Regrets," "Evening," and "Moonlit Meadows." The wit of Prokofiev's scherzando principle shines through "Promenade," "Parade of the Grasshoppers," and, especially, "March."

Technical coordination 

All of Prokofiev's piano music demands great psychomotor skill, and Musique d'enfants serves as a starting point for the development of these skills. In particular, the set could be used to help teach hand crossing, leaps, left hand dexterity, control, and fingering. In "Morning" and "Promenade," the left hand crosses over the right, leisurely in the first piece (see Excerpt 5), and more quickly in the second (see Excerpt 6). Later, in "Waltz," the right hand crosses over the left.

​Leaps in both "Morning" (see Excerpt 5) and "Waltz" help develop students' eye-hand coordination, while the bass triplets in "Promenade" (see Excerpt 3) and rapid bass figuration in "Tarantella" (see Excerpt 7) exercise left hand dexterity. Managing the soft, evenly spaced sixteenth notes of "Fairy Tale" or the "lop- sided" eighth-note pairs in "Moonlit Meadows" would help students develop technical control.

​A performer with prodigious technique, Prokofiev took to heart his mother's belief in not emphasizing exercises. Musique d'enfants allows students to develop their technique while playing music, not repetitive drills. And, the music is not condescending. Prokofiev clearly respected what children are capable of accomplishing technically, and of experiencing musically. Their musical substance makes them suitable for adult beginners as well as for children.

Though Musique d'enfants was published in the United States in 1945, apparently it received no reviews until 1950, when four appeared. An anonymous reviewer for Music Review observed:

The delightful twelve easy pieces for children show that in 1936 [sic] Prokofiev still retained his uncanny facility for coining deft musical epigrams, no less pungent than Debussy's Children's Corner and successfully competing with Schumann's Kinderscenen in resourcefulness and variety.28 

The Children's Corner and Kinderscenen sets are more advanced than Prokofiev's and are found in the repertoire of concert pianists. The reviewer obviously perceived the musical depth and sophistication of this suite.

Joseph Wolman, in an introduction to the 1945 edition of Musique d 'enfants, asserts that the pieces reflect "enlightened" thinking about children's music education.29 Harlow Robinson, in his biography of Prokofiev, devotes several paragraphs to this opus, terming it "accomplished and original."30 In 1935, while most Western composers were seeking greater complexity, Prokofiev created simplicity in Musique d 'infants,31 simplicity that is neither maudlin nor shallow. Instead, it is a remarkable blend of pedagogy and music, accomplished naturally and without self-conscious effort. Musique d 'enfants reveals a heretofore unfamiliar side of Prokofiev—a side as tender and ingenuous as his music for children. The pieces themselves dignify the genre of teaching pieces, and also the young students for whom they are intended.


NOTES

1. Jaffé, Daniel (1998). ​Sergey Prokofiev​, 20th Century Composers. London: Phaeton Press, pp. 26-28.

2. Robinson, Harlow (1987). Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, p. 7.

3. Jaffé, p. 10.

4. Appel, David H. (Ed.). (1979). Sergey Prokofiev, Prokofiev by Prokofiev: A Composer's Memoir (Guy Daniels, Trans.) Garden City, NY: Doubleday, p. 13.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p. 14.

7. Ibid, pp. 14-15. Anticipating his readers' curiosity about the piece's title, Prokofiev explains that, at the time, India was experiencing a horrendous famine. Thus, "India" and "Indians" were a major topic of conversation among the adults around him. He also notes that, because the piece is notated between F3 and F4, it seems to require a B-flat, which he omitted, adding, "The lack of a B-flat should not be attributed to a sympathy for the Lydian mode. Rather, the inexperienced composer had not yet decided to touch the black keys."

8. Ibid., p. 15.

9. Ibid., p. 19.

10. Ibid., p. 15.

11. Ibid., pp. 16-17.

12. Robinson, pp. 72-73. 

13. Jaffé, pp. 30-31.

14. Fiess, Stephen C. (1994). The Piano Works of Serge Prokofiev. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, p. 159.

15. Jaffé, p. 212.

16. Fiess, p. 7.

17. Ibid., p. 9. 

18. Seroff, Victor (1979). Sergei Prokofiev: A Soviet Tragedy. New York: Taplinger, p.75.

19. Ibid., p. 76.

20. Fiess, p. 47.

21. Seroff, p. 75. 

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., p. 76.

24. Fiess, p. 91.

25. Robinson, pp. 305-6. 

26. Ibid., p. 307.

27. This and all subsequent musical examples are from Leeds Music Corporation's edition of Musique d'enfants, published in New York in 1945 as Music For Children: 12 Easy Pieces for Piano, Opus 65. Titles of some of the pieces are different in later American editions (for example, "Fairy Tale" is translated as "A Little Story").

28. Review of Musique d'enfants (1950, November). Music Review 11, p. 331.

29. Woman, Joseph (1945). Foreword to Music for Children: 12 Easy Pieces for Piano, Opus 65, by Sergey Prokofiev. New York: Leeds Music Corporation, n. p.

30. Robinson, p. 307.

31. Chiu, Frederic (1996) Master Class: Frederic Chiu Explores Prokofiev. Piano Today 16(4), 6.

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