Scythian Suite, Op. 20
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = alto flute), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings
First LA Phil performance: August 28, 1956, Leopold Stokowski conducting
The origins of Sergei Prokofiev's Scythian Suite were in a “barbaric” ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes which was, thematically and sonically, to at least approach the scandalous success of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps of 1913.
Diaghilev’s assignment to Prokofiev was to produce a “ballet on a Russian fairy tale or a primitive prehistoric theme.” Not surprisingly, the composer chose the latter.
The scenario settled on one of the common themes of Slavic mythology, the conflict between light and darkness, the former personified by the sun god, Veles; darkness by Chuzbog, the most loathsome of monsters, a relative to Kastchei of Stravinsky’s Firebird; his prisoner Alla, the nymph of the forests; and the brave Scythian warrior Lolli, her rescuer. Prokofiev had in mind as centerpiece a vast orgy of the evil spirits and criticized the initial concoction of poet-collaborator Sergei Gorodetzky as “too pretty.” Which was close to Diaghilev’s opinion when the composer delivered the piano score. Plans for the ballet were scrapped.
But Prokofiev thought the score worth saving and boiled it down to a four-movement concert suite, which scandalized and delighted its first Mariinsky audience in January 1916.
“The timpanist tore the kettledrum head with his furious blows, and Siloti [the impresario, a noted pianist-composer himself] promised to send me the mangled piece of leather as a keepsake,” Prokofiev reported. “In the orchestra itself there were noticeable signs of antagonism. ‘I have a sick wife and three children, must I be forced to suffer this hell?,’ grumbled a cellist [one wonders how Prokofiev could have heard this], while behind him the trombones blew fearful chords into his ear. Siloti, in fine fettle, said we had given the audience a right slap in the face.”
“A scandal in high society,” reported the critic of the magazine Music. “The first movement was received in silence. The last called forth both applause and stormy protests. Despite this, the composer, who had conducted his own ‘barbaric’ work, took a number of bows.”
Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.