The Magazine

From Russia with Love

For Prokofiev, it was unrequited.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Sergey Prokofiev and His World

edited by Simon Morrison

Princeton, 592 pp., $26.95

In the recent film The Lives of Others, the celebrated (and fictitious) East German playwright Georg Dreyman thrives in an atmosphere of protected privilege in East Berlin, peacefully writing works about the heroic proletariat. It is only when his lover, a great actress who takes the lead in many of his plays, is forcibly seduced by the party cultural minister, and a close friend and theater director commits suicide after being blacklisted, that Dreyman begins to question the socialist system. He takes part in an exposé, printed in West Germany, that shows the true face of the German Democratic Republic by revealing the country's high suicide rate.

Dreyman is placed under investigation by the Stasi but miraculously escapes prosecution when a surveillance officer, transformed by the integrity and passion of his surveillee, fudges a report that otherwise would have verified the playwright's guilt. The Berlin Wall comes down, the socialist government topples, and Dreyman goes on to a new life as a free artist.

There was no such happy ending for Sergey Prokofiev, who left Russia after the October Revolution of 1918 but returned in 1936 with dreams of working happily and fruitfully under the sponsorship of the Soviet regime. The dreams turned to nightmares as the government became increasingly repressive and critical of his compositions. Even propaganda pieces such as Hail to Stalin and Flourish, Mighty Homeland did not save Prokofiev from the sharp attacks of the Central Committee. The Resolution of 1948 banning progressive compositional styles, and the arrest and incarceration of his first wife, Lina Llubera, broke his spirit, and Prokofiev, the distinguished composer of Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, and the Classical Symphony, died depressed and disillusioned on March 5, 1953.

His misfortune did not end there. To make matters worse, Prokofiev expired within 50 minutes of Joseph Stalin, whose death unleashed a national tsunami of political turmoil. As the Soviet Union struggled to pay tribute to its fallen leader and to reconfigure itself for the future, Prokofiev was lost in the backwash--so much so that his death was not acknowledged in Russia for almost a week, and then only because his passing had been announced a few days earlier in the West.

Indeed, Prokofiev's posthumous rehabilitation can be credited in large part to commercial triumphs in the capitalistic United States, in the form of Walt Disney's animation of Peter and the Wolf and the use of the march from The Love for Three Oranges on the radio show This is Your FBI. How ironic to think that Prokofiev was eyed by the KGB but saved by the FBI.

These and other paradoxes of Sergey Prokofiev were pondered last summer at the 19th annual Bard Music Festival, where the director, Leon Botstein, and a dedicated band of musicians and scholars devoted six weeks to exploring "Prokofiev and His World." The festival featured the composer's greatest hits alongside more obscure pieces such as the Overture on Hebrew Themes and Five Poems by Anna Akhmatova, all of which were examined through solo and chamber recitals, symphony concerts, opera productions, ballets, and a film festival.

The public events have now been supplemented by this thick volume of essays edited by Princeton scholar Simon Morrison. Sergey Prokofiev and His World looks at the composer's life and music in great detail, shedding new light on the arts in the Soviet Union, in particular, through documents that have become accessible only recently.

The great coup of the festival was the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet in its original form. The ballet score reflects the meandering genesis of many Prokofiev compositions, which commonly went through revisions, rearrangements, and spin-offs for musical, financial, or political reasons. Completed in 1936 with a happy ending, Romeo and Juliet was not premiered in the Soviet Union because of Pravda editorials criticizing Dimitri Shostakovich and other "degenerate modernists," of whom Prokofiev was the most prominent. The first performance was given, instead, in Czechoslovakia in 1938 before the work was brought back to Russia in a revised version for a national premiere in 1940.