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.2
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.8 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
Descriptive terms, accent marks, and grace notesAt 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!"
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.