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The Soul of a Composer

Can we really understand Britten or Prokofiev through their writings?
By Daniel Felsenfeld


When we look to a composer’s published letters or diaries, likely we seek a rounding out of our idea of an ineffable artist, distant and unknowable. Still, there those who argue that to seek the true soul of a composer, one need look no further than the music. So why bother with their prose? Do we care about Bach’s money dealings, Beethoven’s non-confessions, Wagner’s arrogance? Does it bring us closer to being able to understand that most elusive and powerful discipline, music? Yet scholarly editions follow scholarly editions, and the exegesis of composers’ prose verges on being a cottage industry. We read by way of reading into their musical works, trying to sort out how circumstances, both personal and global, come to bear. The compiled writings of composers can broaden our understanding of these artists as people: we come to see the world through their own lens in a much more immediate way than music alone can provide.

Britten_bk.jpgRecently two such books, heavy in both a literal and a figurative sense, have been published: Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume Four, 1952-1957 (Boydell Press, 633 pages , $90) and Behind the Mask: Sergey Prokofiev Diaries, 1915-1923 (Cornell University Press, 848 pages, $49.95), from a collection of notebooks originally believed lost but eventually found in the trunk of conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Both volumes seek to expand the legacy of these already well-documented composers, and if for completists or scholars they are essential, they do, for reasons of sheer bulk, run the risk of overwhelming even the most avid of enthusiasts. If either of these composers is your area of research, it would be hard to imagine future scholarship without the latest collection of personal writings. These are important and necessary books—though it is frustrating how little they reveal.

During the years covered in these two volumes, Britten and Prokofiev were at vastly different places in their career trajectories. Between 1952 and 1957, Britten is at the height of his fame, a composer of the establishment, a national treasure. Between 1915 and 1923, the peripatetic Prokofiev is just making his way, moving from arrogant enfant terrible to the shining star of Russian music he would later become. Britten struggles to keep himself on top; Prokofiev struggles to get there. These personal narratives beg different questions: What does a young composer need to do to build a reputation, and what does an older composer need to do to keep it?

If we are really being honest, we want the dirt from published letters and diaries. We read the letters of Beethoven to figure the exact nature of his relationship with his nephew; Ned Rorem’s scintillating books offer a sense of how a certain kind of artist, then underground, functioned at a vanished time and place. We want encounters with the big names of the time, scandalous affairs, fiery tirades. What nasty bits of gossip do these books reveal? Not terribly much, alas. Prokofiev writes with a certain Russian fire about the belle époque ladies with whom he was having affairs (including the American acting teacher Stella Adler and Dagmar Godowsky, the “wild girl” who was the daughter of pianist Leopold Godowsky); Britten raises more than a few hackles by having a twelve-year-old boy as the locus of his fatherly concern in his vast, detailed travelogues. These are books about composers in the disappointingly dull act of composing—ledgers of toil. Take away certain personal events and, as is the case with any artist’s biography, we are left with indefatigable laborers under the unceasing strain of their own empty pages.

In the early 1950s, Britten was a household name (even the famous Beyond the Fringe television show satirized him). As this volume of letters begins, he is working on an opera, Gloriana, written with William Plomer and based on a novel by Lytton Strachey, commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. But most of his letters are documents of humble workmanship. The bulk of this volume (number four in a projected series of eight) is taken up in dutifully businesslike correspondence with librettists (literary names like Plomer, as well as Edith Sitwell and E.M. Forster), directors, conductors, singers, instrumentalists, or his assistant Imogen Holst, whose content is disappointingly practical: i.e. “I’ve written the first section,” he writes to Plomer, “but I await your next visit here with impatience, because I have had to make drastic changes in the form of this part.” As is almost always the case with anyone interesting, what is not written is almost always more intriguing.

Britten is not the most ebullient of personalities, but if his cup occasionally runneth over: “Please come back soon & let the sun shine again,” he writes to his lover, Peter Pears, or “I was too excited to play the piano,” he writes to director Basil Coleman apropos of an early rehearsal of Gloriana. We get little in the way of insight, or even the force of personality that would produce his oeuvre. Over six hundred pages, the book cements what is already widely known: Britten’s most pathological element was his work ethic. In the years spanned by this volume, he composes some of his more enduring masterpieces, including his operas The Turn of the Screw and Noye’s Fludde, as well as his massive ballet Prince of the Pagodas—and thus secures his well-earned fame. The volume scrupulously documents this period, but we still know precious little about the inner workings of the mind that made this music, at least not from the composer himself. Extensive, meticulously detailed footnotes provided by the keepers of the Britten flame—Philip Reed, Mervyn Cooke, and Donald Mitchell—make up most of the volume, and it is from them we are somewhat able to complete the picture. Britten dashes off a “this went well” postcard about the Venice premiere of The Turn of the Screw, one of the watershed moments in musical history; the details of the world’s reactions are left to the small print.

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The Britten volume is a series of letters, intended for at least semi-public consumption; Prokofiev’s private diaries are full of his own brash opinions. From this lengthy book—the second volume after Reckless Youth, with one more to come—we get a little sense of this irascible youth making his way from Revolutionary Russia to glittering 1920s New York. Behind the Mask is conscientiously translated, corrected, and footnoted by Anthony Phillips. Peering out from this volume is a young Prokofiev making his way though a complicated world not his own, a fugitive from the Revolution, the toast of America, on the brink of fame, and in the midst of the exhausting and often disappointing process of arranging performances of his works and for himself as a soloist (he somehow always manages to fare well, at least artistically if not financially).

These eight years see almost daily entries about composing his operas The Gambler, The Love for Three Oranges, and The Fiery Angel, as well as the Scythian Suite; his ballet Chout; his third and fourth piano sonatas; his violin concerto; the choral work Seven, They are Seven; and a smattering of small works. He also writes the librettos to all of his own operas, as well as short stories and poetry (Prokofiev believed he was equally good as writer and composer, or at least that he “wrote better poetry than Tchaikovsky”) and reads widely from Schopenhauer, Kant, Petronius, and Gogol. He is in Petrograd, Moscow, Japan, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and the Grand Canyon; he plays solo piano concerts in Carnegie and Aeolian halls; he writes operas for the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago; he conducts his own works with major orchestras; acts as soloist in his own piano concertos. He is always busy, always broke. Unlike the Britten volume, this one gives many pages about the power of the music of Prokofiev through the lens of Prokofiev; he had a high opinion of himself and his own work. And from his admittedly personal, not-intended-for-publication point of view, we get a taste of this roaring personality, closer to the clichéd vision of the tempestuous artist than Britten.

Just beyond the sexual encounters and the bridge parties, beyond the yelling matches with Stravinsky and the sycophancy to Rachmaninoff, lies a dizzying, preternatural work ethic. More than anything, Prokofiev worries, struggles to get pieces done (writing a whole act of an opera in less than a week or a movement of a concerto in a few days) and tries to manage his debts and get paid, often berating himself for working too little. Mostly, what we get is a clear sense of how an artist manages to work an active social life into a daily regimen of musical discipline. Even for a composer of Prokofiev’s greatness, pianos are substandard, solo recitals are expensive, orchestras don’t rehearse enough, and critics don’t understand. The book certainly puts a human spin on the man—to a fault. In a way, we know too much (including such details as how much he won or lost at bridge) and at the same time learn too little.  

If you approach either Britten’s letters or Prokofiev’s diaries seeking a life-changing epigram or nugget of wisdom regarding how they composed, these books will disappoint. But a deeper reading of both books reveals a certain truth: Composing is a daily struggle, tedious and uninteresting save to the one doing it, in the end even the staunchest efforts of the great are often the quickest path to disappointment. So why did they do it? Perhaps the answer will be revealed in the forthcoming volumes. Perhaps not.


Daniel Felsenfeld is a New York-based composer and music journalist.