“Fleeting” #10: Visions Fugitives

Today we are moving on to a different section in the program: Fleeting Visions. The first work in this section is Visions Fugitives, op. 22 composed by Sergei Prokofiev. (Please visit here to see the entire program.)

Sergei Prokofiev, Select Movements from Visions Fugitives, op. 22

Sergei Prokofiev was born during a turbulent time in history. In the world of music, while Romanticism was still present, modernism was on the horizon, and some embraced the new sound while others openly criticized it.[1]His home country also went through major changes after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. His life certainly reflected this dramatic period in history. 

Born to an agronomist father and a well-educated mother in current Ukraine in 1891, Prokofiev grew up in a comfortable environment.[2]As he listened to his mother playing the piano for hours at home, the young Sergei started to experiment on the instrument himself, which resulted in his very first piece “Indian Galop” composed at the age of five.[3]While studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Prokofiev became a successful performer and composer although his works did not necessarily please the conservatives because of his radical modernist approach, “combining striking dissonance with motoric rhythms”.[4]Anna Essipova, his piano teacher who was considered as one of the best pianists at that time, described Prokofiev as “very talented but rather unpolished” at the “Romantically oriented” conservatory.[5]Just like Debussy, Prokofiev abandoned Romanticism and embraced the modernism movement, but the Russian composer adopted a very different style, resulting from his belief that the piano is a percussion instrument and should be played percussively.[6]Consequently, Prokofiev’s sound world is at times quite different from Debussy’s especially in his earlier works (e.g. Suggestion Diabolique, op. 4, no. 4; Toccata, op. 11). However, as the later discussion suggests, there are certain similarities between Prokofiev’s music and Debussy’s as evident in Visions Fugitives

Shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the composer left his homeland to tour the world, including the United States and France, but Prokofiev did not necessarily have a positive experience overseas; he considered his years abroad as “a gradual process of failure”, partly due to the public taste that turned out to be more conservative than the composer’s expectation.[7]This unpleasant experience eventually led him back to Russia permanently in 1936. However, at that time back home, any adventurous music was banned and labeled as “formalism”: the music that “did not reflect the heroic ideals of the Soviet worker” or as Prokofiev himself described, “the name given to music not understood on first hearing”.[8]Then why did the composer choose to return to such an environment? As a matter of fact, his friend Vernon Duke asked the composer how he could live and work in the atmosphere of Soviet totalitarianism.[9]This is how the composer explained why he was content:

“Here is how I feel about it: I care nothing for politics – I’m a composer first and last. Any government that lets me write my music in peace, publishes everything I compose before the ink is dry and performs every note that comes from my pen is all right with me. In Europe we all have to fish for performances, cajole conductors and theater directors; in Russia they come to me – I can hardly keep up with the demand.”[10]

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), another Russian composer who fled to the United States and unlike Prokofiev settled in the country, bluntly called Prokofiev “politically naïve” for returning to Russia.[11]Indeed, naïve he was. In 1948, the resolution issued by the Central Committee accused Prokofiev and other leading composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) of “formalism”, “anti-democratic tendencies that are alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes”, and accused their music of being “strongly reminiscent of the spirit of contemporary modernistic bourgeois music of Europe and America”.[12]Along with other composers, Prokofiev ended up issuing a joint letter to Joseph Stalin to thank him for giving them the “public spanking”.[13]Even after the crackdown, Prokofiev continued to write music but unfortunately never recovered his unique musical voice.[14]Ironically, he died on the same day in 1953 as his oppressor Stalin.[15]  

Visions Fugitives is a collection of twenty short pieces written between 1915 and 1917. Prokofiev originally called this set Mimolyotnosti, which comes from the following poem written by the Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942):[16]

I do not know wisdom – leave that to others –
I only turn fugitive visions into verse.
In each fugitive vision I see worlds,
Full of the changing play of rainbows.
Don’t curse me, you wise ones. What are you to me?
The fact is I’m, only a cloudlet, full of fire.
The fact is I’m only a cloudlet. Look: I’m floating.
And I summon dreamers … You summon not.[17]

While the Russian word mimolyotnosti literally means “transiences”, it is translated as “fugitive visions” in this English translation of the poem, but is also often translated as “fleeting visions”.[18]The French title Visions Fugitives was suggested by Balmont’s friend, Kira Nikolayevna, to Prokofiev according to his diary, written in August, 1917:[19]

“I played the Mimolyotnostiand given that my title had been taken from Balmont’s verses […] I asked if he found it appropriate to the music. Balmont liked both the piece and the title very much, and Kira, who spoke excellent French, came up with a French translation for the term: ‘Visions fugitives’. Up till that moment I had not been able to find it.”[20]    

It is important to note that Visions Fugitives was composed before and around the revolution, which means that the fear of being accused of “formalism” by the authorities was still absent, and the composer was still free to experiment and pursue the modernist path. As shown below, the order of the twenty miniatures is not chronological, which indicates that Prokofiev had a particular idea about the order. David Nice, the author of Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, suggests that there is a musical logic to the set; while “the first numbers play with his usual harmonic evasiveness round A minor or C major”, “[a]fter the midpoint, the Visions seem to pass through the crucible of the Sarcasms, and the later stages palpably darken”.[21]    

Year 191519161917
Movements5, 6, 10, 16*,
17*
2, 3, 7*, 12,
13, 20
1*, 4, 8*, 9, 11, 14,
15, 18*, 19

Years of Movements Composed.
*Selected for this program

The movements selected for this program are the ones that convey fleetingness or evoke fleeting images. As such, you will mostly hear the colorful side rather than the percussive or steely sound that many associate with Prokofiev. The fact that Balmont whose poem inspired Prokofiev to write this work was a Symbolist poet is no surprise. As a matter fact, Vyacheslav Karatygin, a music critic, wrote about Visions Fugitives in the newspaper Nash Vek in 1917 as follows:[22]

Prokofiev and tenderness – you don’t believe it? You will see for yourself when this charming suite is published.[23]

I. Lentamente

Prokofiev’s favorite use of “white-note melodies” manifests in this pensive piece that opens Visions Fugitives.[24]It starts and ends with an E minor chord, but remains harmonically evasive until the end. It is somewhat reminiscent of Debussy’s world partly due to planing, the parallel voice leading frequently used by French composers at that time. The simple binary form is possibly a reflection of his instruction con una semplicità espressiva; the A section consisting of thirteen measures are practically carried over in the ensuing A’ section consisting again of thirteen measures but embellished and partially transposed. As misterioso suggests, the piece concludes with an E minor chord, a surprising end tinged with ethereality. 

VII. Pittoresco (Harp)

Pittoresco (picturesque), an unusual tempo marking, certainly indicates the importance of colors in this piece. The “harp”, the only descriptive title the composer gave in Visions Fugitives, is expressed by arpeggios prevalent in this movement. The Mixolydian mode is implied, but again it remains harmonically elusive. A surprising thunder-like dissonance played forte at the penultimate measure quickly evaporates like a mist at the very end with the dynamic marking pianissimo.  

VIII. Comodo

This movement probably possesses the strongest sense of tonality. The simple melody, combined with the tempo marking Comonodo (comfortable), communicates innocence especially with the white-note melody. The piece concludes with a coda based on the opening material at a slower tempo, resulting in a sense of nostalgia.  

X. Ridicolosamente 

This movement also has an interesting tempo marking: Ridicolosamente (ludicrously, humorously). The incessant staccato thirds executed by the left hand and the contrasting legato playing and light-hearted arpeggios performed by the right hand communicate this character. Prokofiev’s instruction sostenuto written together with staccato at the beginning is probably a part of the sarcasm.

XVI. Dolente

The descending chromatic motion, the central material in this movement, unquestionably contributes to realizing the tempo marking Dolente (sad) as the motion results in a sinking feel. The form is the A-B-A’ ternary form; after the section based on the descending chromatic motion, the white-note material is presented. When the descending chromatic motion comes back again, it is combined with white-note open fifths. When the piece ends, all we hear is four Es played pianississimo,which almost sounds like a lonely sigh.         

XVII. Poetico

Another interesting tempo marking Poetico (poetic) is assigned to this movement, which again features chromatic motions. While the right hand opens the piece with semitones in the range of an ascending minor third (B-flat, C-flat, C, and D-flat), the left hand joins with semitones in the range of a descending minor third (A-flat, G, G-flat, F). This eventually results in the poignant dissonance created by C-flat (right hand) and C (left hand), which was implied by the right hand fluctuating between C and C-flat at the beginning. The challenge for the performer is to create a poetic sound world with such dissonances, which signals that colors play a significant role in this piece. After the ambivalence and insecurity created by dissonances, this enigmatic piece finally finds its momentary stability at the end with a B-flat minor chord with a missing fifth.

XVIII. Con una dolce lentezza

With the slow tempo and the gentle swinging motion, this movement somewhat reminds us of Debussy’s prelude Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir in which we hear a reluctant waltz. The up-down contour and Prokofiev’s instruction languido in this piece are also reminiscent of the same contour we see and “languor” we hear in Debussy’s prelude. The tempo marking Con una dolce lentezza (with a sweet slowness) communicates an intoxicated feeling and a fleeting delicious moment that we are reluctant to let go, but just like a dream, the music dissipates into nothingness in the end.  

If you are interested in reading the full program notes with more detailed analyses, you can access them here:

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[1]Dorothea Redepenning, “Prokofiev, Sergey (Sergeyevich),” on Grove Music Online (accessed June 3 2018), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 526.; Barbara Russano Hanning, Concise History of Western Music (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014), 593.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd ed., 526.

[7]Redepenning, “Prokofiev, Sergey (Sergeyevich),” on Grove Music Online.

[8]Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd ed., 529.

[9]Ibid., 530.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid., 529-530.

[12]Ibid., 532.

[13]Ibid., 534

[14]Hanning, Concise History of Western Music, 594.

[15]Redepenning, “Prokofiev, Sergey (Sergeyevich),” on Grove Music Online.

[16]David Nice, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 129.

[17]Konstantin Balmont, Stichotvoreniya (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, 1990), 151; quoted in Nice, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, 129.

[18]Nice, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, 129.

[19]Sergei Prokofiev, Sergey Prokofiev Diaries, 1924–1933: Behind the Mask, trans. Anthony Phillips (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 221.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Nice, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, 130.

[22]Ibid., 129.

[23]Ibid.

[24]Ibid.

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