Visions fugitives are a series of short piano pieces composed by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) between 1915 and 1917. They were premiered by Prokofiev on April 15, 1918 in Petrograd, Soviet Union. They were written individually, many for specific friends of Prokofiev's, and he originally referred to them as his "doggies" because of their "bite". In August 1917, Prokofiev played them for Russian poet Konstantin Balmont, and others, at the home of a mutual friend. Balmont was inspired to compose a sonnet on the spot, called "a magnificent improvisation" by Prokofiev who named the pieces "Mimolyotnosti" from these lines in Balmont's poem: "In every fleeting vision I see worlds, Filled with the fickle play of rainbows". A French-speaking friend at the house, Kira Nikolayevna, immediately provided a French translation for the pieces: Visions Fugitives. Prokofiev often performed only a couple of them at a time as encores at the end of his performances.
The pieces contain dissonant harmonies, similar in nature to music composed by Prokofiev's contemporaries Schoenberg and Scriabin, although still retaining highly original concepts in both tonality and rhythm. The pieces are whimsical musical vignettes and, although dissonant, are pleasant, effervescent, and bright, as if Prokofiev wished to show a slower, more joyous side of his imaginative personality. The overall effect is in the impressionist style, not unlike a work of Debussy; in fact, many of the movements are similar in style and sound. Because of the almost-uniformly mellow style of the piece, performers must have much patience and be willing to work on the relatively difficult technique required to capture the essence of this work.
Because the movements are so short individually (lasting around one or two minutes), most performances include a group of movements. A complete performance lasts between eighteen to twenty minutes, but due to the slow, expressive nature of these pieces, individual performers may have notably different times than indicated (relative, of course, to the short lengths of these movements).
List of movements by name (tempo)
- 1. Lentamente
The movement begins quietly and hesitantly, as if wandering. The gentle floating chords are like spots of dappled sunshine through a canopy of leaves overhead, ever-changing in the wind; they are to be played softly but clearly. However, like the patterns of light, this movement lasts for just a moment, with performances rarely lasting more than a minute and forty seconds.
- 2. Andante
Like the first movement, this movement is also quiet and hesitant. However, unlike the first, the introduction quickly launches into some relatively biting dissonant scale-like passages in the high register with a bass which rocks back and forth in a way similar to that of the pendulum on a grandfather clock. This movement lasts around two minutes and forty-five seconds.
- 3. Allegretto
This movement starts out with an agreeable scale-based section that slowly rises. This passes into a mildly-playful interplay between the two hands, which somewhat abruptly comes to an end after some bright chords. This movement lasts around only a minute and twenty seconds.
- 4. Animato
This movement is noticeably more lively than its predecessors. The piece is played detache or staccato for the chordal passages and leggiero for the scalar passages. After the initial excitement, the piece calms down into a slower, more mellow bass melody, and the piece never "recovers" from this style change. This movement lasts just over a minute.
- 5. Molto giocoso
The shortest movement of the entire work, this thirty-second movement is uniformly light and playful but a little "all over the place"; one gets the impression Prokofiev meant it as a musical plaything.
- 6. Con eleganza
This movement is dance-like, with a gently rising melody which quickly blooms and fades away. Another short movement, performances last around forty seconds.
- 7. Pittoresco (Arpa)
This movement begins with a narrante bass accompaniment somewhat reminiscent of the famous opening of Prokofiev's notorious Piano Concerto No. 2. The right hand enters with a fleeting, fairy-like, sparkling melody which seems to develop aimlessly. Close to the end of the movement there is a sudden, dark bass chord, and the movement quickly dies after that. This movement has a performance time of around two minutes.
- 8. Comodo
This movement has one of the more traditional (non-dissonant) melodies of the work. It is generally solidly-played (as opposed to the lighter styles of the previous movements) and suggests cloud spotting on a warm spring day or some other happy scene from childhood. A performance lasts about a minute and forty seconds.
- 9. Allegro tranquillo
A rising right hand melody breaks into a left hand run that becomes the new melody, which switches back to a bright right hand melody. The bass accompaniment is, in this case, to be played more prominently than usual because it complements the right hand melody, which is higher up on the keyboard and thus needs support if emphasis is desired. There are some bell-like tones right before the piece ends, which is usually within two minutes.
- 10. Ridicolosamente
The left hand plays a simple "up-down" motif repeatedly while the right hand begins a dissonant grace-note based melody. The movement, as its title suggests, is very jumpy and comical, and usually lasts around a minute and fifteen seconds.
- 11. Con vivacità
This movement's melody is almost-exclusively in upwards or downwards appoggiatura-like scale fragments interspersed with punctuated, accented dissonances. However, the piece has a short, legato middle section in B-flat minor. A performance lasts about a minute.
- 12. Assai moderato
This movement is noticeably heavier and more depressed than its predecessors. The entire temperament of the piece suggests something is wrong, but in a way which is slightly cautious (as opposed to outright scared), since it is played mostly solidly. The movement lasts almost about a minute and twenty seconds.
- 13. Allegretto
At first listen, this movement appears to return to the wandering style introduced to the audience at the beginning of the work. It quickly develops however; but this expansion is limited and just as quickly returns to the beginning melody, in textbook ABA form. This movement is around forty-five seconds in length.
- 14. Feroce
This movement is completely distinct to all the other movements in the work. The piece is unapologetically dissonant, commanding, and march-like (just as its title leads one to expect). The repeating syncopated bass notes are a characteristic of this movement, which lasts about a minute.
- 15. Inquieto
This movement's repeating bass immediately creates a sense of urgency until it opens up to a staccatoed and heavily-chordal melody that gradually grows in magnitude until one great final shove, after which the piece ends. A performance lasts just under a minute.
- 16. Dolente
This movement is distinctly polyphonic, and is scalar. The hands develop separately and outwardly (i.e., with the right hand towards the top of the piano and the left hand towards the bottom of the piano.) This movement also lasts just under a minute.
- 17. Poetico
The left hand melody proceeds unbothered by the ligher right hand accompaniment (which is, of course, flipped of the normal). The piece grows to the top of the keyboard, where both hands participate in a sparkling, nearly-trill like shifting of chords. This movement lasts around fifty seconds.
- 18. Con una dolce lentezza
Again, this movement returns to the wandering style of before, though somewhat more solid than its predecessors. Performances last about forty seconds.
- 19. Presto agitatissimo e molto accentuato
As its title suggest, this movement is more active and forceful, with a third-based development. The movement abruptly ends with a pounding bass exchange that both hands share. The piece lasts about forty-five seconds.
- 20. Lento irrealmente
This movement appears to be searching for something, and has a slightly exotic melody which includes some partial scalar passage which, like the rest of these movements, tends to develop towards the top of the keyboard before coming down to some more bass development. Performances last about two minutes.
- Behind The Mask, Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries 1915–1923, Translated from the Russian and Annotated by Anthony Phillips, Cornell University Press, 2008
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