In the summer of 1917, Chicago businessman Cyrus McCormick Jr., the farm machine magnate, met composer Sergei Prokofiev, then 26, while on a business trip to Russia.
Prokofiev was unknown to McCormick, but the composer recognized the distinguished American’s name at once, because the estate his father had managed owned several impressive International Harvester machines. McCormick expressed an interest in the composer’s new music, and he eventually agreed to pay for the printing of his unpublished Scythian Suite. He also encouraged Prokofiev to come to the United States and asked him to send some of his scores to Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Frederick Stock.
McCormick wrote to Stock at once, saying that Prokofiev “would be glad to come to Chicago and bring some of his symphonies if his expenses were paid. But not knowing myself the value of his music, I did not feel justified in taking the risk of bringing him here.” After Stock received Prokofiev’s scores, he replied to McCormick: “There is no question in my mind as to the talent of young Serge.”
Although Stock at first doubted that it was feasible to bring the Russian composer to the United States right away, Prokofiev (or Prokofieff, as the U.S. press spelled his name at the time) made his debut with the CSO the following season, playing his First Piano Concerto under Eric DeLamarter’s baton, and conducting the orchestra himself in his Scythian Suite in Orchestra Hall in December 1918. Both were U.S. premieres.
“The appearance here of the young Russian, Serge Prokofieff at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert was the most startling and, in a sense, important musical event that has happened in this town for a long time,” wrote Henriette Weber in the Chicago Herald-Examiner. “Personally he is middle-sized and blond, somewhat gangling about the arms and shoulders, and entirely business-like in demeanor,” reported the Journal. “His business is his music, while he is on the stage, and he would seem to resent even the time that it takes to bow.”
The music itself caused quite a stir. “Russian Genius Displays Weird Harmonies” was the headline in the Chicago American. “The music was of such savagery, so brutally barbaric,” Henriette Weber wrote, “that it seemed almost grotesque to see civilized men, in modern dress with modern instruments performing it. By the same token, it was big, sincere, true.”
The public loved it. “Every man and woman there reacted to it,” Weber continued, “and Prokofieff was given a thundering ovation that at least in a slight degree expressed the tumultuous emotions he inspired.”
Prokofiev returned to Chicago four more times. In 1921, he oversaw the world premieres of his Piano Concerto No. 3, which he played in Orchestra Hall on Dec. 16, and his opera, The Love for Three Oranges, which was staged by the Chicago Opera at the Auditorium Theatre on Dec. 30. (The Chicago Symphony also played Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony for the first time that month.) His last visit, in 1937, introduced Romeo and Juliet.
PHOTO: During a 1919 visit to Chicago, Sergei Prokofiev pauses to reflect while in his hotel room | CSO Archives