|Sergei Prokofiev, in the United States about 1919
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.
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!”
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