Prokofiev’s ‘Fiery Angel’ and modernism

I was recently asked to deliver a paper on Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel within the context of contemporary aesthetic views on modernism. I’ll be exploring this topic further as I’m working on a big project focussed on the composer’s operas but I thought I would put down some initial ideas here. I think Prokofiev’s relationship with ‘modernism’ was rather ambiguous and personalised; secondly because the opera underwent so many revisions that the work ultimately became disconnected from its original context so it’s really quite impossible to tie it to an aesthetic context. I have always considered this particular opera a misunderstood work – it demands a great deal from its audiences. It is based on a symbolist narrative, features a demanding soprano part and relies on an audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to an almost impossible extent. It is an epic work, which tries to materially represent two worlds, which automatically poses a dramaturgical problem.

Valery Bryusov wrote his Fiery Angel hurriedly between 1907 and 1908 for inclusion in monthly instalments in ‘The Scales’ (a periodical for new literature established in 1903). It is written in the first person (just like The Gambler, Prokofiev’s first mature opera set to the novella by Dostoyevsky). It claims to be a translation of reminiscences written in 1535 by a German knight and adventurer, himself born in 1504 (the reminiscences were supposedly ‘found’ by a Russian editor). It is a symbolist novel of its time and as such fuses life with art (combining medieval demonology with a very real episode from Bryusov’s own life). Historical figures were woven into it (such as the Archbishop of Trier and Doctor Agrippa of Nettesheim) and accounts of demonic possession derive from contemporary descriptions.
Here is a brief timeline of the opera and like most of his other operas, this one underwent several revisions and changes.

1919-1923 (original version)
1926-1927 (more stylised revision)
1930 (libretto completely revised)

Source materials (such as the marginalia on his copy of the novel) indicate that Prokofiev was interested in physical descriptions of characters and the creation of atmosphere. Occasionally Prokofiev underlines passages of text, such as the Latin incantations of the Inquisitor: “Spriti maligni, damnati, interdicti, exterminati, extorsi, jam vobis impero et praecipio […] in ictu occuli discredite omnes qui operamini iniquitatem!” He was also drawn to the character of Renata. It seems to me that one of the most compelling aspect of the source text for the composer was the theatricality and drama inherent in the novel. In a letter to his friend Myaskovsky, Prokofiev remarked that “In the Fiery Angel these is little of the divine but tons of the orgasmic”. (Harlow Robinson, Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, 250)

The composer had plenty of musical material to work with; indeed I often think that after he had spent a decade working on the opera, he actually had too much material – in different stages of completion and motivated by several aesthetic drivers. This is probably one of the main reasons that at times it might (mistakenly) seem as though the opera is unbalanced or unmanageable. Prokofiev exercised control over his materials in three main ways:

  • characterization
  • visualisation
  • sonic exploration of language

 

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