My good friend, Sergei

I’ve had some good friends in my life. They have stood by me in thick and thin, never judging, never putting me down, and always reassuring me I’m okay, in a way I can’t begin to explain . . . well, on second thought maybe I can. It’s like this: if I can say to my really good friend, Sergei, “I get it, I understand what you’re saying, I feel your pain, and your joy,” then it affirms something about me, as well as him.

It’s hard to say who my best friend was, or still is, I should say. Well, actually, no it’s not; but I’m going to keep that one to myself for a while longer. There are still a few things I have to work out in regards to that friendship. But when I’ve got it together – and that better be sooner than later – I’ll let you know.

But as far as my other best friends are concerned, I’m quite clear about them. They’re part of a rather large group of a certain artistic type of person. I have enjoyed the company of some in that group from time to time, but for one reason or another was never able to form as strong a bond as I’ve had with a few others.

Take Richard Wagner for example. I almost feel guilty, even embarrassed to confess that I have been greatly moved on occasion by certain pieces of his music, like the Overture to Tannhauser, Siegfried’s funeral music from Gotterdammerung, and especially the Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal. Evocative stuff, that; but, mind you, not so much that I’m going to drop to the floor and start chewing the carpet.

Or is that a myth? Whatever, it may offer a bit of a clue about one of the big problems I have with Wagner, which is that he was the favourite composer of the most evil man who ever lived. Wagner was himself openly anti-semitic, to the extent that his friend, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, eventually turned against him because of it. At least Nietzsche, who was mistakenly lumped in with the Nazis as a precursor of that abominable movement, with the so-called “Superman” concept, could justifiably have claimed he had been grossly misunderstood. That’s if he had lived long enough, and hadn’t lost his mind

(By the way, “Superman” is a mistranslation of the German “ubermensch”or “overman,”properly translated into English, and much more reflective of what Nietzsche really meant.)

Anyway, I suppose it’s silly to let my dislike of Wagner the man limit my enjoyment of his music. But there you have it. I don’t count him as a friend – period, end of story.

If backed into a corner and faced with an ultimatum, “tell us who your best musical composer friend is, or else,” I’d have to say, Prokoviev.


Sergei Prokoviev, my good friend

Sergei and I go a long way back. I think I heard Peter and the Wolf when I was quite young, about 11, maybe earlier. But our friendship really started when I heard, and saw, the late, great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould play the 7th Piano Sonata live on CBC television when I was a high school student. (That performance is on YouTube, by the way.)

From that day on I went on a lifelong, sometimes faraway trip with Prokoviev and his music. The final, reflective 9th Sonata actually became my favourite; for much the same reason his 7th and final symphony is my favourite, with the clock-ticking theme.

Did it speak of the end of his life, the end of Stalin’s, the end of the Soviet Union, or all of that? Prokoviev’s friends begged him not to let it end on that note. You’re already in enough trouble, they warned him. So he wrote a silly little coda, a last laugh, as much as anything. The symphony is sometimes played with it, more often not, which I prefer.

I feel strongly that I’m in the presence of a kindred spirit, a friend indeed, when I listen to Prokoviev’s music, so full of turmoil, and yet suddenly in the midst of that comes the most tender melody, and sublime moments that seem to reach out toward mystery, linger there for a while, and then move on. There’s a moment, just a minute or two, in the 9th Sonata I have always cherished as the most wonderful I’ve ever heard. I never tire of it. Prokoviev was extraordinarily versatile: so much great movie music; what a team he and Sergei Eisenstein were; and ballet music, especially Romeo and Juliet.

I’m happy to see Prokoviev has finally been rightly acknoledged as one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century. And in the pantheon of composers I put him right up there with Beethoven and Bach. They’ve also been good friends of mine. Again, when I was a high school student I practically wore out Gould’s first LP recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Many’s the evening I listened to it by candlelight and was transported to the edge of the universe.

More recently, about 10 years ago I discovered Samuel Barber, best known for his Adagio for Strings. Originally it was the 2nd movement of his String Quartet, which I actually prefer. But my favourite Barber is his Violin Concerto, especially the 2nd movement. I don’t think any composer ever composed such achingly beautiful melodies, not even my old buddy, Sergei.


Samuel Barber

I could go on and on: Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring; Mussorgsky and Pictures at an Exhibition, especially The Great Gate of Kiev; Bedrich Smetana and The Moldau, or alternately Vitava, a gorgeous symphonic tone poem by the Czech composer about a river in central Europe; Pietro Mascagni and the Intermezzo from his opera Cavalleria Rusticana, used so perfectly by Martin Scorcese in the opening scene of his movie, Raging Bull. I’m listening to it right now.


Pietro Mascagni

If you go on YouTube to hear it, look for the one with Pietro’s photo. He looks just like I would imagine him: a man with a good, kind heart and gentle, sensitive soul, a man I would love to have had for a friend in real life, as well as in music.

(I do have one question though: how is it that Italians get to have such great hair?)

So, those are some of my good friends.

Hear me, my children, never, ever underestimate the friends you will find in that wonderful realm of great music, and the consolation they will bring you.



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