The Magazine

Prokofiev and the Wolf

Music under Stalin.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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From Russia to the West, 1891-1935

by David Nice

Yale University Press, 338 pp., $35

Sergei Prokofiev

A Biography

by Harlow Robinson

Northeastern University Press, 584 pp., $24.95

THE SOVIET UNION murdered some twenty million of its own people--so it might seem frivolous to trouble oneself with the fate of Soviet artists in particular, were it not for the fact that the Soviet masses venerated and loved them. The record is grim. Lev Gumilev, spearhead of the Acmeist movement and husband of the poet Anna Akhmatova, was executed as a counterrevolutionary in 1921. Vladimir Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930. Osip Mandelstam died in a Siberian prison camp in 1938. Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941. Others fled when they could. The writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Bunin, the painters Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, the composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff were all exiles.

Some who remained behind drew strength from their travail. Boris Pasternak, hounded into near silence for decades, broke free with the novel "Doctor Zhivago" in the 1950s. Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in the gulag and emerged indomitable. Abram Tertz, another gulag veteran, became an eloquent voice, speaking for all who suffered. Anna Akhmatova, though she was refused nearly all publication from 1923 to 1940, never abandoned her vocation. In the preface to her poem "Requiem" (1957), she recalls standing in line outside a Leningrad prison in the 1930s (she does not say so, but her son was a prisoner), when another woman there whispered through blue lips, "'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'Yes, I can.' And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face." Such artists were revered because they knew what barbed wire had done to the Russian soul, and they assured their audience that in their worst anguish they were not alone.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), who ranks with Stravinsky and Shostakovich as one of the foremost Russian composers of the twentieth century, presents a perplexing case study of Soviet man and artist: a lifelong child, selfish, petulant, careless, needy, wounding; a petit bourgeois by birth and haut bourgeois by inclination who lived the free if not always easy life of an émigré artist in Paris and New York for seventeen years, then returned to the Soviet Union just when the crackdown and bloodletting were reaching their worst; an artist who paid the necessary obeisance to the official overseers of Soviet culture yet managed, as carefully as he knew how, to render in his music the pain of living in a country ruled by the malignant; a man crushed in the end by the forces he tried to placate.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Prokofiev's death, David Nice, author of books on Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss, has produced the first volume of a critical biography of the composer, "Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935." One wishes he had waited until the hundredth anniversary. Nice's biography is one of the dullest books I have ever read. One suspects it was written with an audience of a dozen musicologists in mind; one doubts that they found it of much interest either. Nice evidently has no idea of what Prokofiev the man was like, and although he devotes considerable space to Prokofiev's music, he evidently has no idea what it amounts to. His concern is almost exclusively with local effects--numerous musical examples stud the text--and he offers no explanation of how they cohere. Nice's own style in writing is mostly musicological happy-talk, of the sort one should have gotten over in Introduction to Harmony: "All but the playfully brief no. 4 have a contrasting central idea, though this takes up the greater part of the first song, where the legato vocal line finds silken cords to throw round the piano's far-flung major and minor triads. Perhaps the most exquisite of the five is no. 2--not so much for its quaintly oriental central theme in C sharp minor as for the main melody's sudden veering from Prokofiev's most limpid A minor/C major diatonicism to A major, from which it deftly extracts itself via an equally unexpected excursion into C sharp minor."

Yes, and so? So one is grateful for Harlow Robinson's "Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography," first published in 1987 and reprinted in 2002, which is about as good as a musical biography gets: Robinson illuminates the artist's character, penetrates the human significance of the music, demonstrates an easy command of Russian political and cultural history, and writes with clarity and vigor. Anyone thinking about Prokofiev is deeply in his debt.