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Prokofiev was a great composer and a lousy human being

In a double-review in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, I challenge the assumption that a great composer needs to be a decent man. Read it here.

prok diaries     lina prok

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  1. Some people live the best parts of themselves through metaphor. It is a shame that Prokofiev
    was not seemingly able to apply his creative genius into his personal relationships.
    It is an interesting topic-delving into the inner-thinking and percepts of what mechanisms make a ‘decent man-artist’ -a ‘decent human being’…. We are all ‘composers’ of life each day, and I believe our creation of art (music) can have ‘transfer’ into our live activity-particularly if we can realize this transfer and nurture how we might use art/music/ movement in our daily orchestrations.

  2. George Gluek says:

    You’re tearing down a straw man. There is abundant evidence that great artists are frequently not very good people. Prokofiev is just one in a very long line.

    • Dearie me, yes…..the saintly Mahler was apparently a dreadful man, a monster of vindictiveness and envy.
      Nor was Schoenberg anyone’s ideal son-in-law.

      • Both of these comments are counter-factual.

        • George Gluek says:

          I don’t know about Mahler or Schoenberg, but Beethoven was impossible to live with, Hemingway was depressed, Fitzgerald and Mussorgsky drunks, Picasso a satyr, Eliot an anti-semite, Melville abusive, Pound a fascist, van Gogh mentally ill . . . I, for one, don’t expect artists to be saints. :-)

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Where did you read that Mahler was a “a dreadful man, a monster of vindictiveness and envy”? I have never read anything like that about him at all. Sure, like many great artists Mahler was a complex man and apparently his marriage was fairly troubled – but his wife was a complex women, too – but in his professional and artistic life he didn’t have any reason for “vindictiveness and envy”. He was one of he most successful conductors of his time but he was also very generous towards younger colleagues like Walter, Klemperer or Fried whom he helped along in their careers. As a conductor, he performed the works of contemporary composers like Strauss or Rachmaninoff. He conducted the latter’s third piano concerto in NY with the composer at the piano – one of the concerts in history I most wish a recording existed of it. But of course that was too early. In any case, there is little to no evidence he showed “envy” towards other musicians.

  3. Nice article – always interested to know more about one of my favorite composers. Thanks.
    Sometimes it is best not to know everything about an artist ;) but one cannot deny the genius of his music.

  4. John G. Rizek says:

    It’s always very interesting to question about the relationship between the artist and his or her work. Is it possible to separete man and work? Is it desirable? No doubt that Wagner and Prokofiev are good examples for that kind of discussion. Does Wagner’s music has anything to do with his political views?

  5. Interesting that Prokofiev is cited as anti-Semitic, whether casual or otherwise. Maria-Cecilia Abramovna Mendelssohn was born in Kiev in Ukraine and studied at the Gorki Institute in Moscow. She was the only daughter of a Jewish teacher.

    I think it is hard for us in the West in the 21st century to imagine how life in Stalinist Russia would have shaped our attitudes and lives. Similar story with trying to understand how German and Austrian artists coped with living in Nazi times. The most important point is the legacy of consistent high quality of Prokofiev’s work. No genius on that scale could be expected to conduct his daily life quite in the way most Daily Mail readers do. Scores such as those of the ballets Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet are inspirational and some of the finest orchestral music ever written, alongside Tchaikovsky’s ballets.

    History and retrospects may be unkind to us too. I doubt if Prokofiev was one to wish to be remembered as endorsing all Stalin’s actions, any more than a good few British and Americans should feel blamefree ten years on in respect of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the torture/rendering carried out in our names.

  6. Dr. Marc Villeger says:

    Next, the Life of St Dude…

  7. In short:
    What Tony said. :)

    Longer version:
    It seems like a platitude, and probably is — great composers and performers are usually extremely complicated personalities, if only for the fact that they lead their lives very much in the limelight. Or are they in the limelight due to their personalities which makes them somehow driven to achieve the qualities in their work which justify their reputations? It’s very hard to say. Throw in the social and political implications of living refugee lives, and you get some very unsettling psychological motivations.

    I find it interesting that Rachmaninoff, apparently despised by Prokofiev but able to enjoy a great deal more artistic and financial success during his lifetime, was probably more of an ideal father and family man. One can’t say anything like that in Stravinsky’s defense, though (especially after reading the awesome two-volume biography by Stephen Walsh). How much of Prokofiev’s animosity towards his two fellow countrymen/composers can we chalk up to jealousy? Probably a great deal. Composers with a more avant-garde style often look down on their colleagues who compose in a more traditional vein without regard for their works’ intrinsic artistic merit.

    Too bad that Prokofiev didn’t live long enough to realize what a profound effect his music would have on future generations — almost as much as Stravinsky’s, but certainly a good deal more so than Rachmaninoff’s. What I really cannot understand was his attitude towards Debussy…

  8. In my opinion, just one name – Richard Wagner – is enough to end any arguments on this issue. Judging by what I heard from my teachers some of whom knew Prokofiev personally, Сергей Сергеевич was indeed a rather unpleasant human being, but putting him on the same level as RW is completely unjustified.

  9. @Joanne Loewy I liked your post very much, in particular this statement: “Some people live the best parts of themselves through metaphor.” I think of the tragedy of confusing art for life as in the case of Maria Callas who channeled most of her psychic energy into the heroines she portrayed on stage. There was hardly anything left for the real person.
    It is ironic that Prokofiev made the trek back into the Soviet Union in 1936 with high hopes only to have them dashed when he was whittled down to size by the system, the same year his wife was arrested for espionage, 1948.
    JS Bach may have been one of the few composers where the was no separation between his life and work. Strangely enough, Anna Magdelena Bach was reduced to public charity after her husband’s death. Six out of the 13 children they had who survived childhood (plus the others from his former wife) couldn’t be bothered to come to her aid.

  10. If applying the same critical criteria used towards German composers working at the time of the Nazis, Prokofiev’s most pronounced personal failing was his Cantata in honour of Stalin.

  11. James Thomson says:

    It’s possible – likely? – that great people in any area are particularly prone to that still largely unrecognised but hugely destructive affliction – narcissism.

    Wittgenstein – undoubtedly a philosophical genius – was often sociopathic in his behaviour. Indeed, he was charged by the police when a primary school teacher in Austria with seriously physically assaulting his pupils.

    I’ve often asked myself how much I would actually like many of the people whose work I most admire. Very few I fear.

    And as for the not-great-at-all – politicians, the mega-rich, celebrities etc etc, their narcissism is the only thing that got them where they are.

    It’s all pretty awful really.

  12. Rachmaninov was Prokofiev’s piano hero.

    • Read the diaries. You will find a contrary view.

      • It’s interesting to me that his earlier memoirs, edited by David H. Appel and published in 1979 by Doubleday in the USA under the title “Prokofiev by Prokofiev. A Composer’s Memoir”, show Prokofiev as actually something of a Rachmaninoff fan during his conservatory days.

        But I remember reading something about an incident where Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev performed a memorial concert of piano pieces by Scriabin shortly after his death in 1915 when the other was in the audience, but the details escape me. As I recall, after the performance the listener said to the performer something like “You played well” although he didn’t really like the performance, and the performer retorted: “And you thought I was going to play badly?”

        Can anyone fill in the blanks here?

        • A case of biting the hand which fed him by the sounds of it.

        • I found out that it was Rachmaninoff who performed. According to the book “The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight” by Robert Rimm, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev had just met in 1915, the year that Scriabin died. Rachmaninoff was criticized by many of Scriabin’s admirers, including Prokofiev, because they felt that his performance was lacking in the nuances so typical of Scriabin’s esoteric music.

          Although they got along well at first, it was this incident and Rachmaninoff’s over-sensitive reaction which put him off to Prokofiev, according to Rimm.

 for more about the book.

      • Herbert Pauls says:

        I have just acquired Vol 3 and so have not had the opportunity to read of Prokofiev’s changing attitude toward Rachmaninoff. But a few months ago, I methodically (using the index) looked through the earlier volumes specifically to see what P. thought of R. It turned out that, although he felt the older composer’s works were not entirely up-to-date, he still tended to show respect towards R. (considering the the extent to which P. was able to articulate respect period), and liked The Bells in particular, not to mention the fact that he considered R. to be Russia’s top conductor (together with Safonov). Indicatively, he also felt that Rachmaninoff should have been performing more of his own new solo pieces on his American tours rather than just taking the safe route and playing composers like Chopin and Liszt. I believe that, reading between the lines, P. (like basically all his Russian contemporaries) ultimately stood in awe of the older man’s unequalled talent in several departments (and not least his truly unrivaled keyboard skills and legendary memory, to mention only two aspects). In this light, P.’s probable jealousy of R.’s unreachable level in later years would be entirely understandable from a human point of view. The immense popularity of all those “regressive” works must also have rankled him (as is still the case for some commentators even today…). Let us also not forget that right from his earliest years, P. was extremely competitive with his peers and showed an eagerness to point out the failings of others (my favourite is the neat statistical chart he maintained in order to keep track of other conservatory students’ classroom mistakes!)

      • The diaries carry much emotion and Prokofiev would never had allowed them to be published. Listen to Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos and Sonatas and you will hear the big influence of Rachmaninov! Hear those big chords in the first, second and third concertos. It was total jealously on Prokofiev’s part.

        They were both great composers and shame you had to bring up this pettiness.

  13. One thing that leapt out at me from Vol. 1 of the Prokofiev diaries, and has been confirmed by my reading of Vols. 2 and 3, was that Prokofiev had Asperger’s syndrome. It explains his notoriously rude behaviour and the lack of human engagement for which he is getting a bit of stick here. Before I suggested as much in print (in a review of Vol. 1 for Tempo), I consulted the late (and still much missed) Prokofiev expert Noëlle Mann to ask if anyone had raised the possibility before; not in print, she said,. although Gerard McBurney had suggested it in a BBC seminar in 2003. I also consulted Anthony Phillips, translator and annotator of the diaries, to ask if he thought it likely; very much, he said, but he had felt it wasn’t part of his role as translator to suggest as much. Still, the three of us came to the same conclusion independently.
    I believe that a diagnosis of Asperber’s not only explains aspects of his behaviour but also throws light on the music. Consider the slow movements of the Second Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony, for example: they’re certainly beautiful, but it is beauty observed, not beauty experienced.
    I further believe that if you cast your eye around the major composers, almost all of them exhibit Asperger’s-like behaviour: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Alkan, Janácek (can’t do the hacek here; sorry), Bartók, Shostakovich, Martinu, Langgaard, Elgar, Schoenberg, Busoni, etc. Indeed, it may even be that some degree of autism — and Asperger’s syndrome is a spectral condition, in that it occurs on a spectrum of higher or lower intensity — is a pre-condition for the focussed concentration that generates great music. I’ve not seen the possibility raised anywhere and mean to write it up in an article somewhere. Meanwhile you read it here first!

    • Daniel Jaffe says:

      Martin – there’s a great deal I’m tempted to say here in Prokofiev’s defence (particularly as I think he said a great deal through his music during his time in the USSR that he couldn’t say aloud for obvious reasons), but just to say I quite disagree about him not experiencing beauty through his music. If you’re not convinced by the slow movements of his Violin Concerto No. 2 and his Fifth Symphony, what about the opening and finale to his Violin Concerto No. 1? The Five Melodies, originally composed for Koshetz but more famous in their transcription for violin? What Prokofiev was not was a sentimentalist – he distrusted self-indulgence which is why you don’t get reams of ‘beauty experienced’ in his music. What you do get is a lot of feeling – in works like the Violin Sonata in F minor, the Sixth Symphony (consider not only the aching pastoral theme of the first movement, recalled in the finale, but also that tender string theme in the slow movement), and the slow movements of Piano Sonatas Nos 6 and 7.

      • Why in his ‘defence’? If SSP did have Asperger’s, any such assertion is merely a statement of fact, not a value-judgement. Ian P’s later statement about the ‘the continuing prevalence of nineteenth- century obsession with biography and ideas of music as self-expression’ doesn’t allow for the advent of objectivity in self-expression, which was clearly the case with Prokofiev. Surely whatever you compose, write, paint has to be self-expression, even if you only paint black stripes on a page or compose endless successions of B flat. What you are attacking, are you not, Ian, is the idea of music as autobiography, which is a very different thing.

        • Daniel Jaffe says:

          Martin – sorry: by ‘here’ I meant ‘in this forum’, but of course that wasn’t clear from my addressing my response to you. But I do think that it’s all too easy to dismiss the whole Prokofiev case as if it were entirely his fault, or due to something in his make-up, rather than a terrible mistake both he and Lina made and which was turned into a disaster by the horrible machinery of Stalin’s Terror which (as is still to be generally admitted among Prokofiev scholars) removed several key people who were involved in the creation of Prokofiev’s most celebrated works of the late 1930s. Simon Morrison makes quite clear in his book that Lina was already distressed enough by what was going on without knowing that Prokofiev was almost certainly aware that he himself was in danger from his close association with several of these people (Tukhachevsky, Natalia Sats, the heads of the Moscow Bol’shoy Theatre and of the Moscow Philharmonic and Adrian Piotrovsky are just the ones I know of who were all arrested by the NKVD in 1937: all of them apart from Sats were shot, and Prokofiev was not to know of Sats’s fate before his own death in 1953). My guess is he didn’t want to upset her even further by sharing his concerns (though of course one could argue, if he had Aspergers, that this was to avoid creating another source of useless and unassuageable aggravation, rather than to ‘protect’ her). Certainly it would explain the terrible pressure he was under (surely a contributing factor to the end of their marriage) and the uncharacteristically dark tone of the F minor Violin Sonata he started in 1938.

        • Ian Pace says:

          Well, I don’t see why what an artist creates in their work has any necessary correlation with a wider ‘self’. And for that reason I remain unconvinced about the possibility of making direct inferences about Prokofiev’s wider personality and character traits on the basis of his work.

  14. All of this only seems important because of the continuing prevalence of nineteenth- century obsession with biography and ideas of music as self-expression. But a good deal of thought and writing around classical music, and perhaps the sub-culture of classical music per se, is still in large measure stuck in that century.

  15. Robert Secret says:

    I brought up the Poulenc Violin Sonata with my fiddle teacher at the RAM. His, rather dark, reply was that he met Poulenc once and would never play any of his music……

    • But he looked such a jovial chap. i’m thinking of the photo which features him and Britten.


    Touching review by Norman Lebrecht, and what a story it is. I only object to the sentence:

    “Few composers escape Prokofiev’s withering pen. Chausson is “glutinous,” Ravel “an alcoholic” and Debussy “calf’s-foot jelly.” Again, there is a lethal accuracy to this metaphor, an uncanny intimation of Debussy’s colorless shimmer.”

    If anything, Debussy’s work belongs to the most colorful music ever written, the expressive subtleties of which are hardly matched by ANY other composer.

    For the seeming incompatibility of musical greatness of composers and their character, one aspect is always overlooked. Since the beginning of the 19th century, when a regular service to nobility or church evaporated, the place of a composer in society has been that of a freelance artist, who has to try to ‘sell’ his works to the performing bodies. If he was also a performer, that greatly helped. But given the rather primitive nature of the first stage of the musical (performing) culture, being a performer was as haphazard a ‘profession’ as being a composer (just read Berlioz’ memoirs!). A painter only needed to find one single buyer of his canvas to be able to live by his work; a composer needed to either perform his music or find other people to perform it; both trajectories were vulnerable to failure through misunderstanding, unprofessionalism, professional jealousies and the like. It is more difficult to judge a score on its merits than a painting, and then: after performance music disappeared. Creation of such ephemeral art has its specific problems. Doing something else to support yourself or your family was, and still is, quite difficult to combine with writing great music which requires a level of absorbtion, inner freedom and concentration impossible to distribute over many different unrelated activities. That Mahler was a fulltime conductor and wrote his symphonies during his summer holidays (which must have been quite stressfull given the length of the works) can be heard in the unbalanced structure and lapses of taste in his music. The same can be said of Strauss. In the 19C, composers found themselves a bit in the position of an outlaw, vulnerable to the effects of unstable and superficial audience tastes, haphazard financial contexts, the personal whims of performers and programmers, and the business manipulations of publishers. Being a composer and being a great talent in such context creates the experience of living in a jungle, a ‘Wild West’ where everyone tries to get something out of a given situation, and where most people have no moral scruples since resources have always been scarce in music life, be them artistic or financial ones. The only way to ‘succeed’ during their lives was to throw ethical considerations overboard and be self-centred to a fanatical degree. This is the explanation of the curious contradiction between Wagner’s often very noble and ethically-charged music and his ruthless behavior. The so-called ‘complexities’ of great composers’ characters are merely the result of the rubbing of these two mutually exclusive worlds: the jungle of music life and the richness of their inner vision. And the position of composers in society has not changed very much, it is still the same, even when great composers now seem to be extinct.

    The position of especially great composers was profoundly vulnerable – they never knew whether their work would eventually arrive in some sort of enduring repertoire. If not, all their efforts and talents and sacrifices and thus, their life, would be wasted. And Prokofiev found himself in competition with people like Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, the commercially successful Rachmaninoff, etc. etc. It is hard to imagine onseself in such an existential position.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      “That Mahler was a fulltime conductor and wrote his symphonies during his summer holidays (which must have been quite stressfull given the length of the works) can be heard in the unbalanced structure and lapses of taste in his music.”

      Really? How do you know what went on inside Mahler’s head, how his inner creative process worked? Maybe the fact that he had all year to “cook up” his musical ideas in his head while being constantly exposed to musical ideas he encountered while conducting a vast repertoire, and then he withdrew for intense, concentrated, undistracted composing sessions means that the music came out exactly the way he wanted it to, and that the “unbalanced structure” is a result of his enormously complex musical thinking, and his “lapses of taste” are a reflection of his stylistic diversity?

      • To Michael Schaffer: yes, you can look at it that way (the Mahler thing). But in the last century it was custom to philosophise away characteristics of music which could be flaws as well as personal stilistic traits. So, following this lead would eventually mean there is no bad music, because how could we know?

        It can be argued that Mahler was both immensily ambitious (or pretentious?) and often miscalculated. For instance, in the working process, he cut his scores if he was not happy with the result and glued bits together, which can be seen in the manuscripts. These sharp ‘cuts’ were subsequently explained by music critics as foreboding of collage technique used much later in the century. The same with the trivial material next to the sublime: pre-postmodernism (which I think is rather preposterous). It is not difficult to point-out to many places where his music just does not work, like the sagging of tempo and energy halfway nr V 2nd mvt after already a long slow movement (the march), which neutralizes the energy just having been whipped-up. Or the sudden trivial fortissimo cadence at the end of nr IV, slow mvt. Or the empty meandering of the last mvt of nr IX, which has otherwise such an incredibly sublime 1st mvt. Or the entire nr VIII which is unbearable pretentious pumped-up bad Mendelssohn, put together quickly and without much thinking. Or the … etc, etc. But let’s enjoy the pieces of genius: Song of the Earth, nr I, nr IV, the Scherzo of nr V, the mentioned 1st mvt of nr IX, the unfinished nr X, the songs, what else? I think this is it. And the reasons can be argued on the basis of analysis, it’s not just personal taste. (For instance I don’t like much the nr V Scherzo.) It is the attitude to artistic perfection which people like Brahms had, which is lacking, Brahms who spent a long time on every piece he wrote – you can hear that, there went so much care into the writing. Or Debussy and Ravel with their unerring taste, also slow & conscientious workers. People like Mahler and Strauss were much more extravert and wanted to command orchestras, for which they had a great talent – but it also created lack of time and lack of self-criticism.

        • And so, following that “logic”, all composers who work slowly are always better than all composers who work fast? Looks like most of Mozart’s music would never receive JB’s approval – not enough time spent. No, JB, your “explanation” does not make any convincing sense at all. Yes, certain aspects of musical qualities “can be ARGUED on the basis of analysis”, but their objective (comparative?) value(s) – if such a thing even exists – can never be PROVEN on that basis. It may also be argued that Brahms and Debussy are greater composers than Mahler and Strauss, but these distinctions can be perceived as real only because of the unique nature of those composers’ talents and certainly not because of differences in the amount of time each one of them spent on any particular piece.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          John – lots of interesting points, lots to think about. I like that you illustrate your points with concrete musical examples, it makes it much easier to understand your point of view.
          I may not find time to respond in detail until later this weekend, but in the meantime, I would be interested in hearing what you think about Sibelius and Bruckner, and some pieces you haven’t specifically mentioned above, especially Mahler’s 3rd. You say that you consider the scherzo of Mahler V one of the pieces of genius, but a little later you say you don’t like it much. Apparently in one of the two places you meant the scherzo from another symphony, not V?
          Speaking of Strauss, what do you think about Zarathustra, Don Quixote, the Alpensinfonie?

  17. Have to agree with JB’s objection about Debussy, but also with MS’s objection about Mahler.

  18. Mark Stratford says:

    The review of this book in New Statesman says it’s “the story of a woman who was a desperate little nobody when she married, and became a courageous heroine when she was single “

  19. I agree that Prokofiev probably had Asperger’s, but reject the notion that this entitles anyone to dismiss his music as “beauty observed, not beauty experienced”. To the contrary, I think Prok’s music shows that people with Asperger’s are capable of the entire range of emotions and perceptions of beauty. Would an emotional eunuch have written the first movement of the 2nd piano concerto? (one among many, many instances that could be cited in this argument)

    Anyway, if bitching about one’s rivals in one’s diary makes one a “lousy human being”, then every single one of us will be going to hell.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      No, not all of us will go to hell. As you can see from some of the comments above, some people actually are spotless, faultless, angel-like, exemplary human beings. Those people get to judge other human beings. Ordinary, flawed people like you and me don’t have that right, and yes, we will go to hell for being imperfect. And I look forward to meeting Prokofieff there! :-)

      I agree with your comments about “beauty observed, not experienced”. Huh? How can anyone say that after hearing, for instance, the love scene from Romeo and Juliet or the last farewell scene? Is it possible that people who say that are themselves not able to experience, merely observe beauty? Is that maybe a form of Asperger, too? Or some other disorder? Just asking because I have no idea what the definitions for all these disorders are. Sometimes I get the impression though that some people brand everyone who isn’t perfectly “normal” and mediocre as having some kind of “disorder”.

  20. Without wishing to get into discussions of whether Prokofiev did or didn’t have Asperger’s, I think there may be errors of fact in the WSJ review. Was not “Lina Llubera” Mrs Prokofiev’s stage name rather than her original name? And did she not die in January 1989 rather than in October 1988?

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