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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

Prokofieff wrote his merry show in New York, having joined the great wave of emigration that followed the revolutions of 1917, a disastrous “brain drain” for Russia that cost it a number of leading composers, including (besides Stravinsky and Prokofieff) the towering figure of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) who in addition to being the most prominent Russian composer of his generation was a world-renowned piano virtuoso and an outstanding conductor as well.(The transliterated spellings Prokofieff and Rachmaninoff are those that the composers themselves adopted for professional use abroad.)

Art as Plaything

fig. 9-1 Serge Prokofieff, by Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876–1956).

Prokofieff left Russia by traveling east, so as to avoid the battlefields of World War I. He sailed from Vladivostok, a Siberian port on the Pacific, and made his way to New York by way of Yokohama, Japan, and San Francisco. He had a draft scenario for the new opera with him on board ship, given him by the famous theatrical director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1940), with whom he had planned to collaborate. By the time he reached his American destination he had elaborated the libretto into its final form. Having signed a contract with an American impresario, he wrote the opera (in Russian) in 1919 in New York, for performance in 1921 in Chicago (in French).

Prokofieff’s libretto was an adaptation of a draft by Meyerhold that was an adaptation of a commedia dell’arte scenario (that is, a blueprint for improvisation by a troupe of masked players) by Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806), a Venetian “gentleman” playwright, that was itself an adaptation of a pair of fairy tales that were published in Naples in 1634. With every telling the work became further encrusted with theatrical artifice and esthetic doctrine, so that by the time Prokofieff was through with it, The Love for Three Oranges was the epitome of “art about art,” almost more Pirandellian than Pirandello.

The story, stemming from the old Neapolitan tales, was silly simplicity itself. An old king, to cure his son’s melancholia, oils the pavement in front of the palace in hopes that somebody will take a tumble and make the prince laugh. The victim turns out to be the dread witch Fata Morgana, who takes revenge by casting a spell on the prince, causing him to fall in love with three oranges, which he must seek though it take him to the ends of the earth. Inside the last of them, he finds the beautiful princess who becomes his bride. (The other oranges also contained fairy princesses, who shriveled up and died when the prince did not give them water in time.)

The fiaba or theatricalized fable that Gozzi fashioned on the basis of this story was already a polemical work—the sort of tract or pamphlet in the guise of art that became suddenly popular again in the aftermath of the Great War. Gozzi’s aristocratic taste had been offended by the vulgarized theater of his day, as exemplified by modern playwrights who turned out sham tragedies, “in which you find characters hurling themselves from windows or turrets without breaking their necks, and similar miracles”3 (here we might substitute the bloated musical harangues of Mahler or Scriabin), or equally sham comedies of manners that “titillate under pretext of moral instruction” (and here we might substitute the gaudy operas of Strauss).

The quotes are from a wholly superfluous but exceptionally detailed scene in Gozzi’s otherwise rough scenario, which he called the contrasto in terzo: a “quarrel trio” in which three characters, one of them the author’s obvious stand-in, for no good reason declare and debate their preferences in drama. When Meyerhold fleshed out Gozzi’s scenario for some performances in St. Petersburg in 1914, he seized upon the “quarrel trio” and expanded it to the point where it became, both temporally and spatially, the frame of the entire play.

The spatial frame consisted of twin turrets on opposite sides of the stage, housing a collection of clowns representing a bunch of “esthetes” noisily advocating contradictory convictions about what drama ought to be. They form the onstage audience for the theater-within-a-theater in which the action takes place. This much was already a standard practice, if an unusual one, in the traditional theater when ironic distancing was called for: recall the players in Hamlet, or, more recently, the puppet show in Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But Meyerhold took it so much further than any previous dramatist as to turn the difference into one not just of degree but of kind: many theater historians regard his Love for Three Oranges as the very cradle of modernist theater.

Meyerhold’s action began with a parade in which the actors portraying the esthetes—divided into camps of “Realistic Comedians” and “High Tragedians”—entered dueling with quills. The fight was broken up by a trio of “cranks” or eccentrics. One, restraining the Comedians, shouts: “We are fed up with your wares, contemptible farce-mongers, these four- and five-act comedies without any content at all, but with the inevitable pistol shot at the end!”4 Another, holding off the Tragedians, thunders: “We are bored to death with plays that have such a load of dreary philosophy and such a dearth of healthy laughter, to say nothing of stagecraft!” The third, pointing through the fourth wall at the audience (the real one, that is, sitting in the dark), said, “Look—they are waiting there for some actors who can show them the real thing!” The battle, thus joined, continued in an undertone, and with frequent eruptions, throughout the play. The constant comment from the onstage “audience,” and its strenuous exhortations to the actors, completely destroying any sense of theatrical illusion, furnished the play’s temporal frame.

Meyerhold’s Love for Three Oranges, then, was perhaps the earliest application, at least in such an overwhelming dose, of the illusion-destroying “art as art” gimmickry that would within a couple of decades become a modernist cliché. What makes it historically so significant is the clarity of its descent from an eighteenth-century aristocratic model, thus connecting two important strands in what would become the heritage of postwar “neoclassicism.” Even if Prokofieff had never set it, Meyerhold’s response to Gozzi would have been a prime document of the nascent modernist manner and its sources. But since Prokofieff did set it, it becomes an indispensable link in the history of twentieth-century opera as well.

Prokofieff’s opera is a “document” in its own right, since Prokofieff seized upon Meyerhold’s distancing ideas and expanded them as much as Meyerhold had expanded Gozzi’s. To Meyerhold’s Comedians, Tragedians, and Cranks (the latter’s number upped to ten), Prokofieff added a couple of opera-specific groups of his own devising: “Lyricists,” forever demanding “romantic love, moons, tender kisses,” and “Empty Heads,” bent on “entertaining nonsense, witty double entendres, fine costumes.” In this way Prokofieff thought to cover every possible sort of hackneyed operatic situation and the sort of taste that demanded it.

The running gag in Prokofieff’s Love for Three Oranges is the way in which the Comedians, Tragedians, Lyricists, and Empty Heads butt in whenever the action approaches one of their pet stereotypes to egg it on; but of course in so doing they unerringly puncture whatever mood it is that they are trying to abet. The Cranks, eager to foil all factions (but particularly the Tragedians), do more than that. They actually intervene in the plot—Pirandello-fashion, we may be tempted to say, but before Pirandello—to change its course. The audience in the theater, like Pirandello’s audience, is both entertained and given lots to ponder.

The third scene of act III, in which the Prince opens the magic fruit and finds the princesses, would by rights have been the big “pathos scene” in the opera. It has love, it has death, and it bids fair to supply all the attendant emotions in abundance. But the onstage spectators quash everything. The three princesses come out of their oranges dying of thirst, each begging for water more insistently — exactly a major second’s worth more insistently — than the last: see Ex. 9-2. Between the appearance of the second princess and that of the third, a passing platoon of soldiers carries off the two corpses most unsentimentally. When the third princess is about to die of thirst, and the Tragedians are licking their chops at the prospect, the Cranks fetch from their turret a bucket of water, deposit it at center stage, and save Princess Ninetta’s life (Ex. 9-3). No tragedy.

Art as Plaything

ex. 9-2a Serge Prokofieff, Love for Three Oranges, Act III, scene 3, fig. 384 (the first princess begs for water)

The Prince now sings at relative length of his love for the Princess: his little solo, forty measures in all, is actually the longest “aria” in the whole stingy opera. When the Princess begins to respond, the Lyricists smell a love duet in the making and shout “At last! Something romantic, sentimental!” The Cranks hiss at them to shut up. Their fight distracts the lovers from their singing. No love duet. These interferences by the “audience” on stage carry to the audience in the hall a message that Ortega, that happy theorist of “dehumanization,” would have gladly endorsed: For better or worse, the meddling Cranks affirm, the play is literally their plaything—and art is ours. That is the affable side of disillusion. Art is fun again. Expect no more from it.


(3) Useless Memoirs of Carlo Gozzi, trans. John Addington Symonds (London, 1962), p. 168.

(4) Vsevolod Meyerhold, Lyubov’ k tryom apel’sinam, zhurnal Doktora Dapertutto, Vol. I (1914), p. 32.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009002.xml