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‘A musical lollypop’

One hundred years ago, Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges” made its world debut in Chicago. Why here? Read on.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, seen here about 1919, conducted his most famous work, “The Love for Three Oranges” at its world debut, which was held in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre on Dec. 30, 1921.
Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, seen here about 1919, conducted his most famous work, “The Love for Three Oranges” at its world debut, which was held in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre on Dec. 30, 1921.
Library of Congress

Farm machinery and opera.

Not two realms that traditionally mix. You’ve got your threshers and combines over there, doing their business, and your sopranos and librettists in a completely different place, doing theirs. Never the twain shall meet.

Yet perhaps the most famous piece of music that ever debuted in Chicago, 100 years ago Thursday, was first performed here and not New York or Paris or Moscow because Chicago was home to the International Harvester Co.

Interested? Well tough, because that’s our topic for today.

On Dec. 30, 1921, the opera “The Love for Three Oranges,” by Sergei Prokofiev, had its world premiere at the Auditorium Theatre.

How did that happen?

Four years earlier, after the overthrow of the czar, the U.S. State Department sent a delegation to Russia to check out the situation. The committee included Cyrus H. McCormick Jr., eldest son of the inventor of the mechanical reaper and president of International Harvester.

In Petrograd, McCormick met the 26-year-old composer. Prokofiev’s name meant nothing to McCormick. But the ambitious musician certainly knew McCormick’s — Prokofiev’s late father had been a manager of large farms.

Cyrus McCormick built his first mechanical reaper in 1831. Soon he was Chicago’s largest employer, with 120 workers who produced 450 reapers in one year.
Cyrus McCormick built his first mechanical reaper in 1831. Soon he was Chicago’s largest employer, with 120 workers who produced 450 reapers in one year. When his son, Cyrus Jr., met Sergei Prokofiev, he had no idea who the Russian composer was, but Prokofiev knew all about McCormick reapers — his father had managed large farms.
Chicago History Museum

McCormick was also a governing member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and quizzed Prokofiev about who he felt was most worthy of notice on the Russian music scene.

Prokofiev, naturally enough, boosted the most promising young composer he knew: himself. McCormick sent Prokofiev’s published music back to Chicago (along with, to the Russian’s horror, music from lesser composers).

”To go to America!” Prokofiev confided in his diary. “Of course! Here was wretchedness; there life brimming over. Here, slaughter and barbaric rhetoric; there, cultivated life. Here, shabby concerts in Kislovodsk; there, New York, Chicago!”

Prokofiev came to Chicago the next year and was a little disappointed.

“I anticipated being bowled over by Chicago’s overwhelming energy and mobility, and I did feel something of this,” he wrote. “But the city itself seemed somehow cramped and unattractive, with large tracts of soot-stained houses.”

It being 1918, he had a concern that might resonate today: “I am gripped with complete panic about Spanish influenza,” he wrote.

Chicago struggled to wrap its head around his music.

“Russian Genius Displays Weird Harmonies” ran a headline in the Chicago American.

“The music was of such savagery, so brutally barbaric,” Henriette Weber wrote in the Herald and Examiner, “that it seemed almost grotesque to see civilized men, in modern dress with modern instruments performing it. By the same token, it was big, sincere, true.”

”Big, sincere, true” goes down well in Chicago. The day after Prokofiev’s music was first performed here, the director of the Chicago Opera wondered if Prokofiev had anything in the works they might use. Prokofiev remembered, “a strangle little divertissement,” Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam — “The Love for Three Oranges” — and got busy on it: after the requisite squabbling over fees, of course.

Finishing took a few years. On the ship back to the United States in 1921, Prokofiev found himself desperately trying to acquaint himself with what he had created.

“I have to do some cramming to learn my own orchestral score,” he wrote in a letter. “I didn’t count on this, and wrote something terribly difficult; now I have to pay in time and tears.”

Chicago Daily News star columnist Ben Hecht attended the opera’s dress rehearsal. I will resist the urge to just reprint his entire column while I sit cross-legged at the feet of the master, head bowed in humility.

Hecht begins, using the spelling for the composer’s name popular at the time:

”They will never start. No, they will never start. In another two minutes Mr. Prokofieff will go mad. They should have started at 11. It is now ten minutes after 11. And they have not yet started. Ah, Mr. Prokofieff has gone mad.

”But Mr. Prokofieff is a modernist; so nobody pays much attention. Musicians are all mad. And a modernist musician, du liber Gott! A Russian modernist musician!!”

And the music?

”As if someone had given us a musical lollypop to suck and run in our hair,” Hecht wrote before elaborating:

”Music like this has never come from the orchestra pit of the Auditorium. Strange combinations of sounds that seem to come from street pianos, New Year’s eve horns, harmonicas and old-fashioned musical beer steins that play when you lift them up. Mr. Prokofieff waves his shirt-sleeved arms and the sounds increase.

Hecht, about the same age as the composer, liked it.

“There is nothing difficult about this music — that is, unless you are unfortunate enough to be a music critic. But to the untutored ear there is a charming capriciousness about the sounds from the orchestra. Cadenzas pirouette in the treble. Largoes toboggan in the bass. It sounds like the picture of a crazy Christmas tree drawn by a happy child. Which is a most peculiar way for music to sound.”

Prokofiev himself conducted the orchestra. A few audience members walked out. Some critics were baffled.

“Mr. Prokofieff might as well have loaded up a shotgun with several thousand notes of varying lengths and discharged them against a blank wall.” Edward Moore wrote in the Tribune, under the headline, ““Color Marvel, but Enigmatic noise.”

Others got it.

“The wait was worth while,” Maurice Rosenfeld wrote in the Daily News. “A masterpiece ... Prokofieff is a modern who has hewn out a path quite different and apart from that traveled by any opera composer ... he has given us an entirely new and original creation.”

In early 1922, the opera came to New York, and Prokofiev’s estimation of the way his work was received will strike a chord with anyone who’s pondered the difference between audiences in the two cities.

“In Chicago, they did not understand everything, but still defended ‘our’ production,” Prokofiev wrote. While New York critics are “a pack of dogs let out from behind the gate to bite my trousers to shreds,” whose “competitive feelings toward Chicago were aroused” by his debuting there. New York, Prokofiev said, reacts with, “You want to show us something we didn’t think of putting on ourselves? So take that!”