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.

Apparently displeased with the ballet in this form, Prokofiev recycled the music in three different orchestral suites, all exhibiting the tenor saxophone, cornet, viola d'amore, and mandolins that give the original score its exotic color. For the Bard festival, the original "happy ending" version of the ballet was resurrected, with the permission of the Russian State Archive and the Prokofiev family, and a stunning new choreography was created by the Mark Morris Dance Group. Following the premiere at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard, the production went on the road, with appearances in New York, London, Chicago, and other cities.
Prokofiev was born in 1891 in Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the only surviving child of agronomist Sergey Alekseyevich Prokofiev and his arts-loving wife Mariya Zitkova. Prokofiev was tutored at home by his parents and governesses, and his musical gifts emerged early on. He wrote his first piano pieces at age 5, his first opera by age 10.

After studying with the composer Reinhold Glière he entered the
St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating with diplomas in composition, piano, and conducting. His first and second piano concertos, with their flashy virtuosity and dissonant yet palatable idiom, were an instant success, as was his Scythian Suite (1915), a work derived from an aborted collaboration with the choreographer Serge Diaghilev. The Classical Symphony, a groundbreaking neoclassical work issued three years before Stravinsky's similarly derivative Pulcinella, marked Prokofiev as a trendsetting composer.

But the 1918 Revolution interrupted his career. Although he later claimed to have felt enthusiasm for the revolution, he decided at the time to emigrate, traveling to the United States to pursue the life of a concert performer. As Stephen D. Press points out, Prokofiev came to the United States too soon: America was not yet ready for his rigorous works and their explosive cacophonies. His inauspicious arrival, just after the great influenza epidemic, was followed by a difficult period of trying to make ends meet. Sergey Rachmaninoff was far more successful as a recitalist, presenting piano programs that mixed his own works with non-Russian classics. Prokofiev was more intent on pushing the modern Russian repertory, and American audiences were not receptive.

He was also plagued by bad luck. Take the problematic production of The Love for Three Oranges. The commission came during Prokofiev's second year in America from general manager Cleofonte Campanini of the Chicago Opera. Prokofiev, a meticulous and disciplined composer, finished the work on schedule, completing it (as he proudly noted) at 2 P.M. on the due date, October 1, 1919. But plans to produce the opera that season were disrupted by Campanini's death in December, and the following year the premiere was postponed once again because the company was unwilling to pay the production costs. Prokofiev, new to America but quick to catch on to its customs, sued for lost compensation.

An agreement was finally reached, and The Love for Three Oranges opened in December 1921, two years after Campanini's death. The work is an enjoyable parody of traditional operatic gestures, and Prokofiev claimed to have used a simpler musical language for American audiences. Still, the unfamiliar musical vocabulary and the complicated libretto did not please American operagoers--even changing the Russian to French (L' amour des trois oranges) did not help--and reviews were mixed. Only the March won unqualified praise.

"The music, I fear, is too much for this generation," Edward Moore wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "After intensive study and close observation at rehearsal and performance, I detected the beginnings of two tunes. .  .  . For the rest of it, Mr. Prokofiev might well have loaded up a shotgun with several thousand notes of varying lengths and discharged them against the side of a blank wall."

After four years struggling to make ends meet, Prokofiev moved to Europe, eventually settling in Paris in 1923. There he found the atmosphere more conducive to the composition and performance of modern pieces. He established important ties with Diaghilev and the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, both fellow expatriates. The First Violin Concerto, premiered by Koussevitzky, the ballet The Steel Step, choreographed by Diaghilev, and the opera The Gambler, based on Dostoyevsky's novel, show a composer writing in a brittle, futuristic style with static, closed forms.

Throughout this time Prokofiev maintained ties with the Soviet Union, and by the early 1930s seems to have been ready to accept the compromise between adaptation and self-assertion that would be necessary for a return to his homeland. In addition, the simplification of his style, seen in his 1933 film music for Lieutenant Kijé, points to Soviet ideals. In 1936 he went back to Russia for good.

Things went well, at first. Supported by state sponsorship, Prokofiev quickly composed the much-beloved Peter and the Wolf for a children's troupe in Moscow, and he was able to balance musical integrity with propaganda goals in works such as Alexander Nevsky, the score to Sergey Eisenstein's film that he later turned into a historic cantata. Prokofiev was allowed to maintain his passport and travel freely in the West.

But this soon changed. Before long he was denounced by the proletarian faction of Soviet composers, and his passport was taken away. In an act of humiliation, Prokofiev confessed that he had sinned in Paris by using atonal and polytonal idioms, but insisted that, in his heart, he had remained true to the ideals of classical Russian music. The new Soviet manifesto was outlined in Pravda: All art was to be based on principles of "social realism," which required backing the Communist party line, emphasizing folk traditions, and affirming the good life of the Russian folk.

Thus began a long series of compositions in which Prokofiev futilely attempted to curry favor with the regime. Songs of Our Times, written in an unthreatening style, was criticized by the Russian press as being too simple. The opera War and Peace, modeled on Tolstoy, had to be revised to meet party criteria. A Tale of a Real Man, based on the heroic actions of a Soviet pilot against the Nazis, was denounced in preview and never released to the public. Prokofiev could not win.

His day-to-day difficulties with life in the Soviet Union are traced in correspondence with Levon Atovmyan, published for the first time here. Atovmyan was a major figure in the Soviet musical establishment, serving first as chairman of the Composer Division of the All-Russian Society of Soviet Dramatists, Composers, Film, Club, and Stage Authors, and then as head of the Municipal Committee for Composers. More politically savvy than Prokofiev, the Armenian-born Atovmyan helped to steer the composer through the political minefields and bureaucratic labyrinths of the Soviet government.

The correspondence reveals an energetic composer constantly at work, commonly writing several pieces simultaneously. But at the same time it shows Prokofiev's endless concern with petty matters: the accuracy of bills, delayed fees, securing three meals a day for his ex-wife (he later remarried Mira Mendelson) and two sons, and the like. Obtaining the correct type of music paper--24-stave rather than 30-stave--emerges as a major challenge for composers in the Soviet Union. The letters also further verify Prokofiev's willingness to compromise his musical style to suit the demands of the Central Committee. When Atovmyan warns that the Sixth Piano Sonata may be banned because of a dissonant chord, Prokofiev quickly replies: "Regarding the chord in the Sixth Sonata, I'll of course replace it."

In spite of Prokofiev's efforts to please the Soviet government, he never joined the Communist party or took part in civic duties. For these reasons, perhaps, and the poor timing of his death, the government was slow to celebrate his memory and move him into the pantheon of great Russian composers. As Leonid Maximenkov demonstrates in his essay, the Soviet Union systematically immortalized its chosen heroes, first giving them an elaborate burial, then providing financial assistance and privileges for their families, and finally nationalizing their homes by turning them into museums. The entire process was overseen by an immense ideological apparatus, with censorship boards, repertory agencies, secret police, diplomats, and national media working together to canonize the Soviet Union's secular saints.

Prokofiev received none of this support. Moreover, he had composed some of his best works abroad, in the infected air of capitalism. Within the Soviet Union, he was memorialized only gradually, as his stature grew in the West. It was not until 1981, on the 90th anniversary of his birth, that the Central Committee finally agreed to honor his music at a major music festival, and his 1991 centennial went largely unnoticed, coming as it did amidst the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

I recently attended a university performance of Alexander Nevsky. Composed for Eisenstein's 1938 film that celebrates the victory of a 13th-century Russian despot over German and Finnish invaders, the music can be viewed as a form of propaganda, as a thinly veiled attempt to promote Stalin as Russia's protector against the rising Nazi tide. For both Eisenstein and Prokofiev, the project was an unabashed attempt to win official approval.

The audience was composed mainly of students, most of whom were unaware of the score's symbolism. But the music, with its heroic strains and stunning effects, moved them to a standing ovation. Separated at last from politics, Prokofiev's works stand safely on their own, as this Bard celebration has verified.

George B. Stauffer is dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and professor
of music history at Rutgers.