Simon Morrison’s new book on Sergei Prokofiev’s Soviet years, which included the peak of his career and the end of his life, raises some fascinating points about this composer, things I wasn’t fully aware of.
I’ve read The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years once through, and it’s my normal practice to read important nonfiction works such as this twice through before reviewing them. I’ll write a fuller review of the book in the near future, but for now there are some things I wanted to address sooner.
Perhaps the most important discovery Morrison offers is that Prokofiev had been promised he would be allowed to travel if he returned to the Soviet Union, and soon enough the Kremlin reneged. And even when they did allow him and his first wife, Lina, to travel, they did not allow their two sons to go with them, in effect holding them hostage to force the composer’s return.
It had to be difficult for Prokofiev, of course, and it was even worse for Lina, who didn’t really want to return to Russia and would much have preferred to remain in Paris, where she was happy. And after returning, Prokofiev ended up leaving her for the young Mira Mendelson (she’s seen in the photo below at left, with the composer), with whom he remained until the end of his life (he died, as has been noted many times for its ironic impact, on the very same day as Stalin: March 5, 1953).
Prokofiev also was at the peak of his creative powers when he went back to the Soviet Union, and while his life was shortened considerably by heart disease, it’s an open question whether he would have contributed a good deal more to music had he been able to write free of constant bureaucratic interference. One of the most interesting points that Morrison brings is up is that Prokofiev spent much of his time in the Soviet Union trying to write works for the stage: opera and ballet particularly, as well as some film scores, and these theatrical productions offered many more avenues for government meddlers to rework seemingly everything he wrote to reflect political concerns.
In the opera Semyon Kotko, for instance, the German villains in the work turned into Ukranian dissidents after the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. It’s the kind of thing opera composers always had to consider (Verdi’s Un Ballo reworked from Sweden to the United States, for instance), but it’s tragic that Prokofiev insisted on writing for the stage.
He must have felt deep down that the Soviets were not exactly admirable, but that he was Sergei Prokofiev, after all, and that he should have received better treatment at their hands. Surely he understood that years after his fateful return to his homeland, and understood better why Shostakovich avoided writing opera after the 1936 Pravda attack on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
It seems most likely that had Prokofiev chosen to stay away from his Russian captors, he probably would have made his way to that little colony of Russian and European exiles in Southern California. Morrison writes of how badly Walt Disney and other Hollywood producers wanted him to write scores for them, and Prokofiev loved some of the B melodramas Tinseltown was then turning out.
It’s a dreadful story, to watch Prokofiev keep slamming up against the bureaucratic wall and to see him waste his time on things like his cantata for the 20th anniversary of the Revolution. But he doubtless felt he could work within in the system and carve out a place for himself in the Russian arts commensurate with his fame, not realizing what a micromanager Stalin was and how determined he was to have the expression of his country’s artists conform with his conception of the state.
For me, Shostakovich is the greatest of 20th-century Russian composers, but Prokofiev is a close second (Stravinsky is a special case, at least for me). And Prokofiev was a superior melodist whose unusual tunes are uniquely, colorfully his. I find myself enjoying his chamber music more than anything else these days, even the late cello sonata, and listening frequently to his First String Quartet and the two violin sonatas, particularly No. 2 in D, reworked from the Flute Sonata, which opens with one of Prokofiev’s most beautiful melodies, belying the stresses of its mid-war composition in 1942.
I’m not sure what the eventual place of Prokofiev will be in the canon, but surely some of his best music will survive, including the ballet scores for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, and he remains a frequently played composer.
He survived in the Soviet Union unlike many other artists because he was too famous to send to the gulag, but his sad story is nevertheless testimony to the power of the creative spirit, even in the face of obstruction, poor health and repression.