The Prince’s Toys

by Thomas Stiegler

There are different ways to travel the world, and each of us will in the course of our lives find our own approach to it somewhere between two extremes. At one end of the scale, there are those people who move from country to country, who want to see and experience everything and take something home from everywhere. They might not dig very deep, and they might not form a real connection to the particular culture of the place they visit, but over the course of their lives they get an overview of all that is out there, an idea of all that humanity has created throughout its history – all that really defines us as human beings.

On the other hand, there are people who dig deep and who visit the same places year after year in order to penetrate the magic of a landscape or the inner essence of a culture to the core. They may not have as many colorful pictures as the globetrotter – and today they might even be considered old-fashioned – but they have the opportunity to penetrate far into the heart of a culture and truly understand it.

No one can judge conclusively which of the two is better, and it is not really important. What is interesting, however, is the fact that this oscillation between two poles seems to exist everywhere. I’m thinking of literature, for example: Some people wander off into the distance, almost entirely unbounded; they become bookworms who want to learn everything about themselves. Others, on the other hand, deliberately limit themselves to a certain section of history, or read all books by one particular author, and occupy themselves for years with only this one work in order to do it justice as much as possible.

And, of course, this difference also exists in art and among artists! There are artists who flit through all varieties of their art, who try everything and always go new ways and who thus create works that combine seemingly incompatible things and light-footedly bring them into the same framework. Then there are artists who seem to draw everything from within themselves, who deliberately limit themselves tightly to a fixed place in order to dig deeper than we are generally accustomed to. In music, for example, I’m thinking of Nicolo Paganini, who opened up a completely new world for his instrument and pushed the boundaries of what was technically and musically possible to the limit. Or Frédéric Chopin, who limited himself almost exclusively to the piano in his compositions and thus gifted us a whole world.

With the guitar, too, there are artists who consciously focus on our instrument, and one of the most famous among them is certainly the Russian composer Nikita Koshkin. During a long, inspired life, he has not only been creating a considerable oeuvre of wonderful works that are some of the most beautiful and interesting that exist today, but he has also opened up a completely new world of sound for the guitar. The piece of work with which he went furthest, and which is so full of effects and new sounds that one can almost call it extra-musical – even the word program music does not quite fit it; here the performer becomes a storyteller who speaks through the voice of the guitar – is at the same time also the work that made him internationally famous instantly after its premiere on October 24, 1980: “The Prince’s Toys”.

“Far to the east, lonely and bare, stood an old castle. Maybe it belonged to the tsar, maybe to one of his boyars or other servants, unfortunately I don’t know. But that is not as important as the fact that in this castle lived a little prince who found no friends in this barren stretch of land and therefore sat lonely in his room day after day.

This made him sad, of course, and at the same time terribly angry, and it was his toys that suffered the most. Then one day, when he once again threw them into the corner in anger, they came to life and began to play with him. Of course, the little prince was happy, but soon a dark feeling crept over him. And really – suddenly a fairy floated through the window and a magic door appeared on the wall of the room. The fairy opened it and everyone, the toys, the prince and the fairy herself, passed through it in a wild dance and were never seen again. Only the bare room was left alone with herself.”

That (in my words) is the story of this piece of music, though Nikita Koshkin himself once admitted that only the name of the work came to him in a moment of inspiration, and the rest, both the fairy tale and the composition, were created slowly over a six-year process: “The title actually came before the program. The idea of a prince whose toys came alive and fought back, playing with him in the same mischievous way he had played with them, came naturally from the title and fit perfectly with Koshkin’s intent.”1 As you can see, the background of the composition changed over time and more and more the frightening part of the story emerged: “The prince decides to burn his toys because they are dead […] At that very moment, when he was about to throw them into the fire, they come to life and start playing rather ugly games with the prince […] similar to the games he had played with them.” 1

The realization of this story is truly masterful and Koshkin uses various effects of the guitar (mostly discovered by himself) to portray the plot and the acting “characters “2 as accurately as possible. In doing so, he went far beyond clumsy onomatopoeia (“This story gave me the opportunity to use the effects not only as illustrations and not only as additional sounds […] but also as a symbol for the picture.”3), and instead he gave all the characters their own musical character: “I decided to give the effects a meaningful character and wanted them to become an integral part of the whole musical structure of the composition. The attempt to avoid the effects as an abstract end in themselves and not to create the composition ‘for the sake of effects’ gave me the idea of composing a multi-movement suite based on a literary program.” 4

The mischievous prince

At the beginning of the first movement, the audience sees the prince sitting sadly in front of his toys (wonderfully represented by the glissando notes of the opening). A brief lament from the prince – and then the theme is heard, letting this mood flow out in striking tones. We can almost see the prince picking up his toys and finally throwing them away in annoyance (represented by the rough scratching of the fingernail on the strings of the guitar). At the end of this movement, we hear the figures come to life through magic.

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The mechanical monkey

Koshkin once described this movement as a horror story, told on the guitar. For only at the beginning do we see a little toy monkey hitting its cymbals. But as if by magic, it transforms, becomes as big as King Kong and pursues the prince. A threefold faltering and exclamation of the boy, like a cry for help, and then we can hear how he runs for his life – here, there, more and more hastily and close to despair, until the monkey holds him in its hands (only short melodic fragments show how he desperately tries to defend himself). But at the climax, just as the monkey is leading the boy to its jaws, something seems to break inside it and the mechanism fails. The monkey slows down and slows down, finally falling completely silent and the prince saves himself with a leap.

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The doll with blinking eyes

From the very beginning, this piece alienates the listener because of its harmonies. But if you take a look at the cover artwork of the CD “Koshkin plays Koshkin“5, they explain themselves – the composer did not have a doll in mind as we know it from our childhood days, but an Indian figure which looks at us almost questioningly. The harmonies of the Far East match this and soon the reference becomes even clearer, because accompanying the melody we hear “[…] an imitation of Eastern drums and percussion instruments.“2 Again, we experience how the doll grows and grows and transforms into the goddess Kali, until finally a calm and threatening melody, which sounds almost as if played on a sitar, leads to the end. This is then even more ethereal, as we see the prince slinking away to seemingly calm harmonics (and a faint reminder of the drums of the beginning).

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Toy soldiers

With swirling drums and a melody like a loud trumpet signal, this piece comes along and is not without reason considered one of the most popular works of modern music which astonishes all its listeners. We experience a deadly battle – thundering cannons, the clashing of swords, the sound of muskets and pistols and the cries of the wounded. All this is almost more than seems possible for a guitar, and yet Koshkin manages to make it all vividly appear before us, heightening it almost to the point of madness – until it suddenly breaks off. The prince is captured, a drum roll sounds and in the upper voice we hear the sad singing of the boy who fears for his life. Then silence seems to return, everything becomes quiet and waits – and with a final leap the boy saves himself in his toy carriage.

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The Prince’s coach

This movement always makes me think of the Christmas sleigh ride in “War and Peace”. But something seems to be wrong here, because the horses become wilder and wilder, the unbridled ride goes faster and faster, and the prince is in the greatest distress, until he is finally thrown out of the carriage and the horses rush off at a wild gallop.

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The great puppet parade

Then comes the truly magnificent finale of this piece, which supposedly appeared to Nikita Koshkin in a dream and which he brought down onto the music paper in a single day. Once again all the characters appear and say goodbye as if in a great parade. First appears (in naked despair) the prince, followed by a waltz called “Vivo meccanicamente”, which is represents the mechanical monkey, and the shadowy passing of the carriage. The puppet, hitherto in her disguise as the Indian goddess Kali, suddenly appears to the ring of a habanera (how charming is this conceit!) and, in the composer’s words, “a funny little quotation from the Argentine tango appears at the end.“4 Then the soldiers march up again.

Now the boy is completely surrounded by his toys, and over the drums one hears again the melody of the beginning, the very first theme of the work, and so the circle is closed. The prince transforms along with his toys, all of them getting smaller and smaller, and finally they disappear through a door that appears in the wall (another wonderful touch by the composer – at the end you can hear the creak of the door closing).

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This concludes the piece, and also this description. I hope I could show with my words how deep Nikita Koshkin has dug here and that he has succeeded in one single ingenious stroke not only to give the world a wonderful piece of work (which alone would have been much), but also to expand the acoustic possibilities of the guitar and to exhaust them to the last.

Source Notes

1 ….. »The Prince´s Toys: Koshkin Plays Koshkin«, Soundset Recordings SR1011, 1998; Kenneth LaFave

2 ….. »My brother helped me to see more clearly the structure-giving image of the composition. From these pictures I got the feeling for the painterly expression and the visual features.«; Nikita Koshkin, »Suite: The Prince´s Toys (and) Andante, Quasi Passacaglia e Toccata by Nikita Koshkin«, Tokyo: Gendai Music, 1983

3 …..  »Nikita Koshkin: Insights into compositional process and style« by Gregory Cain Budds

4 ….. »The Prince´s Toys – Koshkin Plays Koshkin«, 1998

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