Prokofiev and Astronomy

I recently completed teaching a six-week course on the Ukraine-born Russian/Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), a course I am eager to reprise in the not-too-distant future. His story is by turns both fascinating and tragic, and he wrote a lot of great music—much of it seldom performed. I am amazed that no one has yet produced an English-language documentary on Prokofiev, nor even a biopic.

Since my primary interests are classical music and astronomy, I am naturally curious about significant classical composers who were also interested in astronomy. Prokofiev was one of those composers.

Prokofiev kept fascinating and extensive diaries between 1907 and 1933, a practice which sadly ceased as soon as he began seriously contemplating a return to the Soviet Union and the increasingly repressive regime of Joseph Stalin.

Here are Prokofiev’s astronomy-related entries from those diaries.

The song Prokofiev is referring to here is Two Poems for voice and piano, op. 9, no. 1. The text is a poem by Russian poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942). Here is that poem in an English translation:

In this first performance, Anna Grigorievna Zherebtsova-Andreyeva was the singer, and Dulov (first name unknown) was the pianist.

Here is a performance of this work by Andrey Slavny (baritone) and Yuri Serov (piano), recorded at St. Catherine Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg in 1995.

The astronomy book Prokofiev was referring to is The World of the Heavens [Nebesny Mir], An Illustrated Astronomy for the General Reader by E. I. Ignatiev, published in St. Petersburg in 1916. Hardly a “little book” at over 400 pages!

When Prokofiev writes “the green and white diamond of Sirius” he must be referring to the impressive scintillation of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, since at the latitude (50° N) of Kharkiv, Ukraine, where he was at the time, Sirius never reaches an altitude higher than 23° above the horizon.

What’s an arshin, you might be wondering? An arshin is an antiquated Russian unit of length equal to 71.12 cm, so “two arshins” would be a little less than 5 ft. in length.

An editorial footnote indicates that “Presumably, Prokofiev’s Fraunhofer was looted or destroyed in the Petrograd flat after his departure in 1918. It would be worth a fortune today.”

Prokofiev continues,

Prokofiev again continues,

An editorial footnote indicates that “The White Nights in St. Petersburg are normally regarded as lasting from 11 June to 2 July. During this period the sun does not descend far enough below the horizon for the sky to become dark.”

Now on holiday on the Kama river, a tributary of the Volga, Prokofiev writes,

Prokofiev would only have been able to see four satellites of Jupiter with his telescope: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. The other two “satellites” must have been background stars. If I have figured correctly, Prokofiev would have been observing Jupiter early morning on Friday, August 24, 1917 (New Style date) which would have been Friday, August 11 (Old Style date) in Russia at that time. The two stars he thought were satellites of Jupiter were probably 8th-magnitude stars HD 28990 and HD 28966.

Prokofiev’s reference to the Sun “belonging” to Hercules indicates he knew about the solar apex, the direction the Sun travels relative to the local standard of rest. William Herschel was the first to demonstrate that the solar apex is in the constellation Hercules.

Balmont refers to the aforementioned poet, Konstantin Balmont.

Prokofiev is referring to the 1917 Russian Constituent Assembly election during the Russian Revolution, and that he observed Venus, Jupiter, Sirius, and the Moon at Kislovodsk.

On his way to his first visit to the United States, Prokofiev is spending some time in Japan. At this time he is in Yokohama. At latitude 35° N, he is indeed getting a good view of Scorpius. The date in brackets is the New Style (Gregorian calendar) date, whereas the non-bracket date is the Old Style (Julian calendar) date.

Prokofiev is now sailing from Yokohama to San Francisco, by way of Honolulu.

Prokofiev is now in New York City.

Prokofiev is, of course, referring to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, England.

This takes place in Paris, and B. N. is Boris Nikolayevich Bashkirov, a wealthy amateur poet and friend of Prokofiev whose pseudonym was Boris Verin. “Linette” is Lina Codina, who would become Prokofiev’s wife in two years’ time.

An editorial footnote states, “When staying in Les Rochelets in the summer of 1921 Prokofiev every evening read aloud a chapter of H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History to his mother and Boris Bashkirov.”

Interesting that this insightful essay was penned on “Pi Day”, since the transcendental π = 3.1415926535897932384626433832795… has infinitely many digits that neither terminate nor enter a permanently repeating pattern.

My take after reading this is that there may be two realities. One reality (our reality) consist of entities that exist within time and space. But there is another reality, where there are entities that exist outside of time and space (of which eternity and infinity are proxies).

As for immortality, since I have no consciousness of anything before I was born, why should I expect that I would have any consciousness of anything after I die? To me, that is the most tragic fact of human existence. Within a few minutes (or hours, if extraordinary measures are taken) after death occurs, all of our knowledge and experience—our memories—are irretrievably lost, and all that remains of us is what we have left behind (writing, music, art, etc.), and the memories of those who are still living who knew us. After all the people who knew us personally have died, then all that remains of our existence are artifacts. And, eventually, all of those will be gone, too. This truly emphasizes the importance of this life, of this world, of this time. How we live our lives and treat others today, tomorrow, and the next day are of paramount importance. It is all we have, or will ever have.

Fatou refers to Pierre Joseph Louis Fatou (1878-1929), mathematician and astronomer. I am virtually certain that “Jacobi” is actually the French astronomer Michel Giacobini (1873–1938).

Here are my observing notes about Gamma Leonis:

Algieba.  Very bright, close double.  Primary is orangish-yellow (2.6 K1-IIIbCN-0.5) and secondary is yellow (3.8 G7IIICN-1).  Relative color seems to change as you watch. 

I think it only fitting to end these excerpts from Prokofiev’s diaries with some of his music. In preparing my Prokofiev course, I came across some noteworthy compositions that were not known to me previously. Most unfortunately, some of these works are almost unknown and seldom played because they were written (under duress, without a doubt) as propaganda pieces. Here is, I believe, his most inspired composition written under such circumstances. It is a cantata for chorus and orchestra that Prokofiev wrote in 1939, called Zdravitsa (literally “A Toast!”), op. 85. It was written to commemorate the 60th birthday of Joseph Stalin. The words are hagiolatry in praise of Stalin (Prokofiev did not write them), but the music is truly divine. Here are three excerpts from a recording by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and the Russian State Symphonic Cappella, conducted by Valeri Polyansky.

The first excerpt is of the orchestra alone:

Now, choir and orchestra:

And, finally, the glorious finale:

I look forward to the time when Russia will be free from tyranny, and when this gorgeous piece by Sergei Prokofiev gets a new libretto. No longer a toast to the despot Stalin, but a toast to peace-loving people throughout the world!

Prokofiev, S. (2006). Diaries 1907-1914: Prodigious youth (A. Phillips, Ed.). Faber & Faber.

Prokofiev, S. (2008). Sergey Prokofiev: Diaries 1915-1923: Behind the mask (A. Phillips, Ed.). Faber & Faber.

Prokofiev, Sergei. (2012). Sergey Prokofiev diaries 1924-1933: Prodigal son. Faber & Faber.