As we near the end of our Prokofiev series, I wanted to focus on an often-ignored side of Prokofiev’s work.
The opera we’ll be hearing from is titled The Love for Three Oranges, composed in 1919 and the recipient of a disastrous public response when first performed. To remedy this problem, Prokofiev extracted what he viewed as the best themes from the opera and turned them into a suite. We will hear the “March,” the only theme that remains popular today.
Part of what made the opera so hard for audiences to like was that it was full of fantastical characters but featured a very minimal storyline. There was almost a lack of a plot, and the segments of the opera seemed disjointed and unrelated to each other. While one movement dealt with peasants’ dance tunes, another switched suddenly to an implied commentary on imperial actions in 20th century Russia. Perhaps the March stuck with people because it was a tune that was memorable amidst the somewhat confusing strains that filled the rest of the opera. Listen for the famous “wrong notes” throughout the work – Prokofiev put them there on purpose. I won’t tell you where they are, since they’ll most likely be quite apparent when they occur, but I will add that each of the “wrong notes” is actually a harmonic trick that Prokofiev is playing with our psyches. He knows that the listener, whether musically inclined or note, subconsciously adjusts to a new tonal center whenever a piece begins. Anything that deviates from that tonal center is aggravating to the listener’s mind, whether they understand why or not, because it creates dissonance between the home key and the note in question. This happens automatically in every one of us once a piece of music starts. That is why key changes in music are so powerful – we don’t see it coming but all of a sudden we are transported to another “tonal home base.” Even my dad recognizes dissonance – and he couldn’t carry a tune if it hit him in the face 😉