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Sergei Prokofiev Hardcover – March 19, 1987

4.4 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

More detailed and comprehensive, and less politically partisan, than previous biographies, this readable account by a professor of Slavic studies at the State Univ. of New York deals objectively but compassionately with the life and work of a major Russian composer whose career began like a skyrocket but ended sadly. He died in 1953, only hours before the death of his principal persecutor Joseph Stalin. An opinionated, difficult man of genius, the nonpolitical Prokofiev was inevitably caught up in the revolutionary changes that took place in his native land. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1918, to Germany in 1922, married an elegant Spanish soprano, moved on to France and became a sophisticated Parisian. When he returned with his wife and sons to the Soviet Union in 1936, he was almost immediately trapped in a situation from which he could not extricate himself. And although he wrote many works glorifying the regime, he was resented for his international past and connections, his foreign manner and arrogance. As soon as he separated from his wife, she was imprisoned "on suspicion of spying." In 1948 he married a Russian woman with whom he had been living for seven years. Almost until the day he died Prokofiev continued to be productive but was frustrated because his operas failed to win critical and popular acceptance. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This is the best biography in English to date on Prokofiev. Robinson, a professor of Slavic studies with a particular interest in Prokofiev's operas, draws upon previously untranslated Russian documents and letters to provide an unusually rich and detailed view of this enigmatic composer. His is a "warts and all" treatment: though obviously sympathetic to his subject, Robinson candidly exposes Prokofiev's flaws, from his musical capriciousness and opportunism to his unpardonable social tactlessness. Prokofiev traveled widely during much of his career, and his observations on the contemporary music scene make entertaining reading. Throughout, the writing is intended for the lay readercrisp, fast-paced, and unencumbered by technical jargon. Highly recommended. Larry Lipkis, Music Dept., Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, Pa.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 573 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1St Edition edition (March 19, 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670804193
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670804191
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 20 x 20 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,130,485 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Harlow Robinson's book is excellent; well worth reading. He strikes the right balance between the composer's personal charateristics and the body of his musical creation. The book is rich in detail, yet to-the-point; it is objective, yet reflects the complexity of this sometimes very unpleasant genius. It is perfectly comprehensible for the interested non-expert who has invested a good deal of time listening to Prokofiev's music, and seeing his movies, ballets and operas. As a Russian speaker familiar with every day speech and everyday life in the Soviet Union, I can say that Mr Robinson has a keen understanding of that culture, right down to having a very fine ear for transliterations. The composer is the Beethoven of the twentieth century: the one who has created the musical language which is so much a part of us that we take it for granted. Robinson brings us the man and the mind behind that language.
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Format: Paperback
Robinson's is a useful popular biography of Prokofiev that is better researched and better written than any other English language bio of the great composer. Equal measure is given to Prokofiev's time in the West, and to his life after returning to Russia. There's much that's interesting here - a persistent exploration of Prokofiev's quixotic relationship with Diaghilev, generous delving into the composer's personal life, including especially some revealing passages on the almost uncharacteristic affection Prokofiev lavished on his children, and a resonant view of his work habits. Prokofiev's career disappointments were many, some even tragic, and the author doesnt beat around the bush, but the admirable thread of fierce devotion maintained by Prokofiev toward his own unquenchable musical purpose is thoughtfully argued by Robinson throughout the book, indeed it's one its strengths. The author even notes details of some of Prokofiev's foppish Parisian clothing that helped start him off on the wrong foot on his return to Russia. There are a number of subtle moments like that where one can discern the winning hand of a committed biographer. The importance of Prokofiev's canon of works is denied a hearing for the most part, but the book suffers little for that. The useful appendices include a chronology and a catalogue (by genre) of the composer's works, in addition to a healthy bibliography. I recommend this book for anyone just taking up the subject of Prokofiev. Listening again to the seventh Piano Sonata would perhaps serve more succinctly for the already initiated.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Harlow Robinson spent years in Soviet Russia researching Prokofiev during the height of the Cold War. His research does not just include manuscripts and letters but also involves many personal conversations with those who knew Prokofiev and even with those who persecuted Prokofiev. As a result he navigates his way through Prokofiev's life with that added dimension of relating personally to those events. Robinson's writing is interesting and warm without being too academic or dry. This book seems to be intended for any real fan of Prokofiev. Lastly, this book really strives to explain some of the perplexities of Prokofiev's decisions. In particular, Robinson strives to explain why Prokofiev needed to return to Russia after his extended residence in Paris. This book is well worth the time to read.
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Format: Paperback
While I will always love his 5th & 6th symphonies, the 2nd & 3rd piano concerti, and his piano sonatas, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is not my very favorite composer. There are large swaths of his oeuvre that frankly leave me cold, and while very gifted, the quality of his work was very inconsistent throughout his career. Having read a number of books on Dmitri Shostakovich, and having appreciated Harlow Robinson's liner notes for the Shostakovich quartet cycle on the Essay label, I decided to give this book a chance. I have now "flown" through it twice, and can confidently say this is one of the best-researched, well-written, and downright most-fascinating biographies I have ever read.

Readers looking for a fawning hagiography are advised to look elsewhere. While Robinson focuses on the composer's work (with a special emphasis on the operas), there is no effort to whitewash his self-centeredness and very difficult personality. Stories of Prokofiev's coldness and cruelty are legion. One wonders how he would have fared in today's world with the same talents, but having to continually toe the line of political correctness and "market" himself. Prokofiev, while he mellowed in his later years, simply did not care what other people thought, and was not shy about saying what was on his mind. Paradoxically, he worked all his life to appease those who commissioned works from him, to say nothing of the powers that be in Soviet Russia. Robinson devotes much discussion to the ideological attacks of Stalin and Zhdanov in early 1948, after the composer's health was already in decline. Prokofiev's response, he writes, was "neither a complete apology, nor a statement of indignant rebellion.
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Format: Paperback
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is the subject of this excellent biography by a professor of literature; it is accordingly much more of a biography and less of a "musical analysis" than many such "biographies" of composers are---and in this case, I think the difference is a "plus."

Robinson offers many insightful views of Prokofiev: "His music might be filled with 'wrong notes,' but it was resolutely tonal all the same; he might fill sonatas with dissonances and shocking rhythms, but he still called them sonatas and wanted them to be considered as such. He stretched the limits of traditional musical forms with a mischievous glee, much as he tested the patience of his teachers." "This frenetic level of activity seems to have been an attempt to avoid a confrontation with silence or his subconscious; he was never a particularly reflective individual." He also notes that "Unlike so many Russian composers before him, Prokofiev never wrote a single explicitly religious setting---no requiems, vespers, choruses or pieces of the Russian Orthodox liturgy." Considering his works for children, Robinson comments, that "he never forgot what it meant to be a child, and how children think, is evident in the playful but never condescending music he wrote for them."

"Beginning in the fall of 1909, Prokofiev was on his own as a composer: ... this was probably to Prokofiev's advantage, for his professors objected to that which was most original about his music." However, he avoided "movements" or "styles" in music: "he avoided joining any circles or identifying himself with any movements." In 1914, "He was still a bad boy, but a brilliant and assured one.
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