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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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.