Discovering Prokofiev: Music and the Archive

On November 7th, the worlds of music and documentary archives intersected in an exceptional concert highlighting the works and life of Russian composer Serge Prokofiev.

Joelle Theubet
November 28, 2017

The concert, the latest installment of the Columbia Sounds Concert Series, featured pianist Cynthia Liu (CC ’18), who interpreted three piano works highlighting Prokofiev’s virtuosity as a composer. Liu’s performance was enriched by a presentation of documentary material from the Serge Prokofiev Archive by archivist Natalia Ermolaev (GSAS ’10).

 “I discovered Prokofiev when I was 14, but really got into him when I came to Columbia,” Liu said. “It was so serendipitous that the university had this wealth of information about him.”

Indeed, Columbia University has been a vital hub for Prokofiev studies since the deposit of a rich trove of the composer's archival material at the University in 2014.

As the archivist for the Serge Prokofiev Archives, Natalia Ermolaev has access to a remarkable collection of over 14,000 items, including music manuscripts, photos, letters, books, that date from Prokofiev’s time in Europe and America (1918-1936). Housed in the Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library and supported by the Serge Prokofiev Foundation, the archive the premier research source on Prokofiev’s time in the West.

Cindy Liu plays Sonata 6

Ermolaev, who received her PhD in Russian Literature from Columbia in 2010, is also an alumna of Reid Hall, having spent the summer of 2006 at the center as research fellow specializing in the Russian émigré community in interwar Paris. When the archives were brought to Columbia in 2014, the president of the Serge Prokofiev Foundation approached her with the opportunity to oversee them.

“I was thrilled to say ‘yes’ because it gave me the chance to come back to Columbia once a week,” she explained. She currently works on the archive one day a week in addition to her full-time position as Assistant Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University.

The idea of bringing the archives to Paris came from music department chair Susan Boynton. Aware of Liu’s appreciation of Prokofiev, Boynton saw this as a unique opportunity to incorporate the Serge Prokofiev archives into a concert for the Columbia Sounds concert series. She contacted Ermolaev, who then chose extracts from the archives based on the pieces that Liu would perform.

“I didn’t make it very easy for her,” laughed Liu. “I’m most interested in the compositions that bookended his career.”

“And I really had to dig to find the information,” said Ermolaev of the documentary materials she found relating to Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82.

Liu chose to end the concert with that piece, which she admitted had always intimidated her: “It’s this monolithic piece that terrified me, but tackling it was a way to confront my fears – and not just as a musician.”

And tackle it she did, receiving wild applause from the audience, which included members of the Prokofiev family, after her electrifying performance of the piece. Serge Prokofiev’s grandson was “absolutely enchanted” by this very unique homage to his grandfather.

Fans of Prokofiev will have additional opportunities to discover the treasures housed in the Archive; a symposium is organized in April in New York with Prokofiev scholars that will culminate in a performance of the artist’s works by Columbia students.


Watch videos of the performance:

Videographer: Solomon Azrieli

The concert was sponsored by Columbia Global Centers | Paris, the Department of Music, Columbia Undergraduate Programs in Paris, Columbia University Club of France, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, and the Fritz Reiner Center for Contemporary Music.