The premiere of the piano cycle “Sarcasms” op. 17 took place on November 27, 1916 in the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the personal performance of the musician. G.G. Neuhaus recollected of one of the first performances of “Sarcasms”: “Pince-nez placed on his nose, F.M. Blumenfeld cast his glance over Prokofiev’s head at the score. Sergei Sergeyevich was already prepared to begin, when he turned around suddenly and said: ‘Felix Mikhailovich! I’d rather you’d step to the side. I’m afraid you’ll hit me in the head with your fist.’ Everyone laughed. F.M. blew it off, but nevertheless stepped slightly to the side. Sergei Sergeyevich played through all the ‘Sarcasms.’ The impression he made was absolutely extraordinary. Some of the audience, among whom more than a few socially respectable people were to be found, were delighted; others were, however, scandalized.”
The grotesque elements of Prokofiev’s compositional style were received by the public as well as the critics with deep equivocation. The composer wrote the following in a letter to his friend and mentor Myaskovsky about the first performances of the Cycle: “People take their head in their hands, some of whom in order to plug their ears, the others—to express their excitement, and still more out of pity for the poor, once promising composer.”
To the admirers of “Sarcasms” belonged members of the popular St. Petersburg circle “Contemporary,” which guaranteed Prokofiev a good reception in the progressive cultural intelligentsia at the beginning of the 20th century. Karatygin, the music critic and one of the most significant ideological representatives of the circle, aptly characterized the Prokofiev-ish slap in the face to public sensibility:
“The daemons of Prokofiev’s boundless imagination abandon themselves to an orgiastic dance over the graves of every single fundament of musical beauty…” (W. Karatygin – speech from November 30, 1916)
The “Sarcasms” themselves were an expression of the young composer’s bitter smile, the scornful irony he felt towards his culture and the art of his time, which remained alien to him. “The Sarcasms, compared to the verse of the early Myaskovsky, were more harshly and painfully barbed. The fearful shock that they unleashed coursed through consciousness with an awful power…” B. Asafjew – “Thoughts and Ideas,” Ch. VII.
Although the fifth piece, with its logical construction and flawlessly honed style, belongs to the early works of the composer, one can already discern the true Prokofiev and his singular talent.
“I still have the program for one of the ‘Sarcasms’ (the fifth piece): sometimes we laugh malevolently at someone or something, but when we look more closely at what we’re laughing about, we see just how wretched and miserable it is. Then we begin to feel uneasy. Although the laughter resounds in our ears, it is now laughing at us.” (from the Autobiography)
Hamamatsu, Japan November 2015.
copyright Hamamatsu IPC
photo by Hidekazu Kurumiya