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Origins of “Heart and Soul”
Debussy vs. Prokofiev

Choosing the first matchup for Classical Smackdown was not hard - my two favorite composers to play also happened to be contemporaries who occupy polar opposite spaces on the musical spectrum.

Prokofiev was a life-long love of mine, and I do not remember a time when I did not know Prokofiev’s music. It started, as with everyone, with Peter and the Wolf, but there was also the Lt Kije suite, the 2nd Concerto (Yakov Zak) and the 5th Concert (Richter). As Richter was the fresh face on the scene during my early years, I heard more obscure Prokofiev works in his hands as I was growing up.

Debussy was a later revelation, after having studied his work with incomprehension in school and in the studio. When I went to Paris and finally realized that Debussy was a real person, his personality came to life. Learning the French language also was key, to understanding the rhythms and inflections of the music. Also, to be able to read Cortot’s writing about Debussy.

The program for the Debussy/Prokofiev Smackdown was carefully crafted to highlight the contrasts and the similarities of the composers’ works.

Round 1

Debussy Suite Bergamasque
Prokofiev Lt Kije Suite (or Romeo and Juliet excerpts)

As an introduction, I chose some of the most familiar pieces of both composers. These works have been woven into popular culture through commercials, film scores and popular songs. Check these out:

Round 2

Prokofiev Sonata #3 “From Childhood Notebooks”
Debussy L’Isle Joyeuse

Large-scale works are rare in Debussy’s output for piano. The l’Isle Joyeuse is the longest single work, with multiple sections that make it very similar to a Sonata form. Prokofiev’s Sonata #3 is almost exactly contemporaneous to the Debussy, particularly if you think of the original source material that Prokofiev used, from his childhood notebooks. Both pieces are incredibly virtuosic, which actually accentuates the basic difference between the aesthetics of the two - Prokofiev’s raw, direct approach vs. Debussy’s constant evasiveness and subtleties of color.

Round 3

Prokofiev Sarcasm #1, 2 Fugitive Visions, Diabolic Suggestions
Debussy Cloches a travers les feuilles, Jardins sous la pluie

Rounding out the repertoire, Debussy’s truly revolutionary work for the piano comes to the fore. His search for color and nuance at the piano was unprecedented. Cortot once played a Debussy Prelude for Debussy’s daughter, who then described how it was different from the way her father played: “He listened more.” The discoveries of Debussy at the piano are all in the nuance and subtleties, the use of pedal, the mixing of notes to create unique harmonies.

Prokofiev wrote in many different styles, according to his own accounting. One must acknowledge his love of new-classic style, his sharp and biting wit, his desire to write “sophisticated” music (impressionist and atonal), his deeply Romantic nature, and finally his truly revolutionary treatment of the piano as a percussion instrument - a first in history.

Round 4

Debussy Reverie
Prokofiev Toccata

Reverie has entered the mainstream through an arrangement for jazz band that has seen many covers, including Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.

Paul Whiteman Band plays My Reverie

There is truly nothing quite as beautiful as Debussy’s simple melody, harmonized in his free style that is a precursor to jazz and the use of chords as colors. No wonder so many jazz singers covered this piece.

Prokofiev’s Toccata was revolutionary when it appeared in the early 1900’s - the first truly percussive treatment of the piano. No one had really exploited the hammers in the piano as hammers until this piece. An American critic labeled Prokofiev “a football player at the piano” for good reason!

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