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.

PROKOFIEV GREW UP in the Ukrainian countryside, where his father managed an estate. His mother was exorbitantly musical, playing the piano six hours a day, and the young Sergei took in Beethoven and Chopin with his mother's milk. The boy began noodling around on the piano at the age of four. Listening to peasant folk songs supplemented his diet of keyboard études, and his first visit to Moscow with his parents, at the age of eight, introduced him to opera (Gounod's "Faust" and Borodin's "Prince Igor") and ballet (Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty"). The sights and sounds incited him to creative riot, as he tossed off his own first opera, started another straightaway, and produced a steady stream of briefer pieces.

Prokofiev's appreciative parents nurtured his gifts, enlisting an accomplished student from the Moscow Conservatory, Reinhold Gliére (a pretty fair composer himself), to spend a summer teaching the fledgling genius. When he was thirteen, they sent the boy off to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were the presiding deities. More influential in Prokofiev's development than the conservatory--they used to say there that he was unable to set down two correct notes in a row--were the salon "Evenings of Contemporary Music," where the musicians defied the tradition the conservatory sought to conserve. It was there that Prokofiev first heard Debussy, Ravel, and Schoenberg, that he met Stravinsky, and that he made the personal connections that would lead him to Serge Diaghilev, artistic director of the Ballets Russes in Paris.

When Prokofiev played some of his pieces for Diaghilev in London in 1914, Diaghilev commissioned a ballet score from the young composer. He thought the result warmed-over Stravinsky, however, and he rejected it. Prokofiev reconstituted the score as "The Scythian Suite," and its 1916 premiere in Petrograd established Prokofiev at the head of the Russian avant-garde--although his rejection by Diaghilev left him with the European reputation of a somewhat timid member of the pack.

Success energized and emboldened him. He knocked off the score for his opera "The Gambler," based on Dostoevsky's novel, in little more than a year. He took as his model Modest Musorgsky's iconoclastic rendering of Nikolai Gogol's play "Marriage," in which Musorgsky stripped opera of its customary panoply of musical showpieces and focused on giving the original dialogue a musical setting. Russia's most daring theatrical director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, championed Prokofiev's work; and, although the singers found the music dauntingly peculiar, everything was ready for the premiere at the Mariinsky Theater, when the February Revolution intervened. Not until 1929 would "The Gambler" make its stage debut.

DISAPPOINTMENT EVIDENTLY GOADED Prokofiev into action as effectively as triumph did. In 1917 he threw himself into work and produced the First Symphony, the First Violin Concerto, two piano sonatas, a cantata, and a cycle of brief piano pieces. Music was all Prokofiev had on his mind, and the significance of the cataclysm erupting around him eluded him almost entirely. Yet even to the mentally cloistered, street violence and the shortage of food and fuel did present a distraction, and in the spring of 1918 Prokofiev set off for New York, planning to spend several months abroad while things returned to normal back home.

His first New York piano recital, featuring works of his own as well as some by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, thrilled critics and audiences alike. A performance of his First Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony led to a commission from the Chicago Opera to compose "Love for Three Oranges," based on Meyerhold's adaptation of an eighteenth-century commedia dell'arte. Prokofiev tossed off both the bughouse libretto and the jauntily eccentric score in nine months, but the production would not hit the stage for another two years. He started another opera as well, in an effort to save his reputation from charges of smirking frivolity: "The Fiery Angel," demon-laden and maniacally serious, which would take him eight years to finish.

But the need to make a living chained him to the peripatetic performer's life, so that composing had to be done in furtive snatches. And the music he did find time to write met in this period with blunt incomprehension. Unable to wait for the New World to acquire the taste necessary to appreciate him, he removed himself to a Bavarian hamlet in 1922, hoping for fecund seclusion. Even in Europe, however, bringing in cash meant concertizing.

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."

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