The Magazine

Prokofiev and the Wolf

Music under Stalin.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Unlike Chicago, which turned up its nose at his Third Piano Concerto--one of his finest works--Paris and London lapped up the piece and the pianist. Once again, Prokofiev thought he had it made. Paris had an insatiable need for the stunning and provocative, and Prokofiev did what he could to oblige. His Second Symphony is filled with sudden dynamic jars, machine-shop rhythms, flying chromatic sparks, repetitive thuds and drillings: This is music that aspires to the condition of noise and occasionally gets there. Yet even here Prokofiev pours pastoral grace like balm over the sonic damage; and one is hard-pressed to tell whether he repents of his modernist disdain for beauty of the Tchaikovsky type, or insists that if you're going to love that beauty you have to love the new ugliness along with it, until you see that it is beautiful too.

AS IT HAPPENED, not even this was innovative enough to charm Paris; maybe it was the concession to the old beauty that vexed the Parisians, for Prokofiev did seem to be too beautiful for them. His First Violin Concerto, which enjoyed its premiere in 1923, made the Parisians yawn with its outworn tonal lyricism, reminding them of insupportable Mendelssohn. The same concerto brought Moscow to its feet, and in 1923 word of the popularity his music enjoyed there stirred Prokofiev's homeward yearnings. Still, Paris remained the cynosure of artistic dazzlement, and Prokofiev was out to astound precisely that part of the world which mattered most. Also, he had married a Spanish opera singer, Lina Llubera, and to the newlywed and expectant father Paris seemed rather more congenial than the socialist motherland.

In 1925 Diaghilev swooped in, asking Prokofiev to collaborate on a ballet about the new Soviet man. When the Ballets Russes produced "Le Pas d'Acier" in 1927, all of Paris had Prokofiev's name on its lips. The proletarian revolution brought to the stage was eminently fashionable: heroic greasemonkey chic of the highest order, to bemuse the diamond-tiara crowd.

While waiting for the ballet to be produced, Prokofiev sought first-hand experience of Soviet man, returning to Russia for the first time since 1918, and performing his own music in Moscow and Leningrad. The artistic bureaucracy rolled out the red carpet, the audiences loved his music, and it was hard to resist the throbbing conviction that he was at last where he belonged. There were those in the government, however, who professed severe reservations about this decadent turncoat musicmaker.

WHEN PROKOFIEV took a dislike to George Balanchine's stylized staging of his ballet "The Prodigal Son" for the Ballets Russes in 1929, Prokofiev again thought of home. Unfortunately, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, which hated anything European and especially anything modern, had in the intervening years won a power struggle with the Association for Contemporary Music, which liked Prokofiev's kind of music. Meyerhold sent a clipping of a critical assault on Prokofiev as a "semi-European" composer in a Russian journal, and though Prokofiev wrote that the review displayed "malicious stupidity and stupid malice," he evidently did not suspect that these had become the norm. Without a serious idea of what he was in for, he began to edge his way back onto the Russian scene.

He did understand that he would have to make some changes. He denounced as the perversities of a wayward youth the wrong notes, spiky lines, jagged harmonies, and grotesque sonorities characteristic of his early work: "We want a simpler and more melodic style for music, a simple, less complicated emotional state, and dissonance again relegated to its proper place as one element of music," he told the New York Times during a 1930 tour, which brought him unprecedented renown in America as the exemplar of "a heartening tendency nowadays toward sanity in music." America clearly loved the idea, but it was not America he most wanted to please.

In 1936 he took the plunge and returned to Russia. Once the Soviets had him, the gracious blandishments ended and reality kicked in. Shostakovich considered Prokofiev a contemptible careerist and political imbecile who thought coming back to Russia would advance his purposes both there and in the West, where Soviet culture was acquiring a tony sheen. Shostakovich had reason for his contempt; in January 1936, the most infamous piece of Soviet music criticism appeared: Pravda, which did not customarily address itself to the arts, denounced Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" for its "grinding" and "screaming" music, its barnyard sexuality, its apolitical and thus objectively anti-Soviet attitude, and its popularity in the West.

Certainly the itch for gain and glory played a part in driving Prokofiev into totalitarian arms. But music also played a part: He was giving up the ironic jolts of modernism for the straightforward solemnities of the people's democratic art.

IT DIDN'T TURN OUT quite the way he'd figured. He would write piece after piece that he was sure would please his masters, only to be rebuffed with disdain. He turned out an opera about a Ukrainian peasant's indoctrination into Bolshevik virtue, "Semyon Kotko"; spent years attempting to meet the unspoken specifications of the culture police for an operatic adaptation of "War and Peace"; tried his hand at a blatant agitprop opera about a Soviet pilot who loses both his legs but returns to air combat, "Story of a Real Man." None made it to the stage in his lifetime. He did enjoy surges of acclaim that lifted him to popular preeminence, but the commissars thought differently.

Perhaps they were not entirely mistaken. From early in his Soviet career, Prokofiev could wield an irony so delicate and unobtrusive it breezed right past the inspectorate. Harlow Robinson writes that even the children's classic "Peter and the Wolf" subtly points to a type of heroic virtue quite contrary to the normative behavior the Soviet powers wished to inculcate. Peter belongs to the Pioneers, an organization for elementary school children that prepares its charges for righteous citizenship--and yet, Peter is not submissive, but rather daring and innovative. This is not the sort of teaching likely to make Stalin and his minions smile; and Prokofiev was lucky that Stalin did not recognize his own avuncular visage in either the grandfather or the wolf.

Prokofiev did on occasion write to Communist order, and his agreeableness won him some honor. Soviet cultural doctrine held film in perhaps the highest esteem of all the arts, and the music Prokofiev wrote for Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" (1939) pleased Stalin himself. The film tells the story of the thirteenth-century Battle on the Ice, in which the Russians defended their homeland against the Teutonic Knights. "Alexander Nevsky" is full of the approved Soviet sentiments, especially hatred of the Germans and love of a stalwart leader: The music declares that, like Nevsky, Stalin holds the fate of his people in sure hands.

A subsequent collaboration with Eisenstein, on the film "Ivan the Terrible," would prove trickier and more perilous. It had occurred to Stalin that he must be the reincarnation of the sixteenth-century tsar, so anything less than adulation of Ivan would amount to lèse majesté. Eisenstein didn't entirely succeed in praising, and Prokofiev abetted the director in his sacrilege. Ivan's most honored retainers, the oprichniki, prototypes of Stalin's secret police, are a gang of drunken yahoos, whose song extolling the pleasures of murder and arson swings along to an undeniably jolly tune; their humming chorus in the cathedral, where they are about to assassinate Ivan's rival, is a brutish parody of sacred chant. The music that accompanies Ivan's recovery from illness could just as well have accompanied his death. Stalin enjoyed the first part of the film well enough, but he assigned his culture boss Andrei Zhdanov to hound Eisenstein for his disrespectful handling of the Tsar in the second part. Eisenstein never did get around to making the third part. Zhdanov hounded him to his death. At an official party in his honor, Eisenstein collapsed with a heart attack. Prokofiev, less obviously culpable than Eisenstein, escaped with his skin.

PROKOFIEV'S CIRCUMSPECT AUDACITY marks his Fifth Symphony (1945), which he advertised as a pure expression of "the grandeur of the human spirit." He delivers something different. This wartime work intimates that, even as a truly magnificent triumph over the Nazis approaches, Russia cannot rejoice wholeheartedly. The music evokes not an elemental conflict between good and evil but a disorderly swirl of emotion: Moral complication bedevils any attempt to make Soviet victory seem purely glorious. The piano sonatas Prokofiev wrote during the war recall the grand themes, feelings, and gestures of the nineteenth century, but filter them through the spiritually ragged, almost threadbare sensibility of a modern Russian.

The opening movement of the Seventh Sonata, marked allegro inquieto, falls immediately into a Chopin-like brooding inwardness that possesses all the distress and none of the pleasures of melancholy; it seems to be sadness without purpose, from which no wisdom or strength will emerge, so the sudden frantic assertion of liberty that breaks out lacks any real hope of enduring, and tumbles back soon enough into the acceptance of defeat. The final, precipitato movement, in which headlong determination almost becomes joy then almost becomes anguish, illustrates the mad amplitude of the twentieth-century Russian soul, shows how near the extremes of emotion are to each other; there is no room here for the moderate and orderly feelings of an emotionally settled existence.

By showing that he knows every nuance of an apparently comfortless state, Prokofiev offers the only comfort he can: The art of a fellow sufferer proves that one is not alone in heartbreak and serves as the crucial lesson in how pain is to be endured, even turned aside for a time; music such as this makes one stop thinking only of one's own misery, as long as it plays in the mind. No one in Paris could have written this sonata; Prokofiev had to come back to Russia and suffer with his countrymen to compose such music.

He paid for such attempts at creative greatness. Episodes of moral daring in his life were always followed by episodes of fearful cringing. Russia had artists who displayed preternatural courage and whose work asserts the splendor of a spiritually free humanity. Prokofiev was not one of them, and the last five years of his life show man and artist alike caving in. In his final illness, he declared, "My soul hurts." He knew he had not been good enough.

However much he paid, he was not the one who paid most dearly for his failures. In 1941 he separated from his wife, Lina, and took up with another woman, Mira Mendelson. During the war, he didn't see his two sons even once. In 1948 he divorced Lina, and the state swallowed her up: Railroaded on the customary trumped-up charges of spying for the West, she was sentenced to twenty years in a labor camp. She was serving her term in the Siberian arctic when the inmates received word of the death of Stalin.

There was no mention then of the death of Prokofiev, who suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage the same day as the Beloved Father, March 5, 1953, at age sixty-two. Lina didn't learn that he was dead until one day the next summer.

While she was emptying slops, someone came running to say that a radio broadcaster had mentioned a memorial concert just held in Argentina for the composer Prokofiev. Lina broke down weeping, and walked off to be alone with her grief.

Algis Valiunas is the author of "Churchill's Military Histories."