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Back in the USSR.

[The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years, Simon Morrison, Oxford University Press, 512 pages]

UNTIL LITTLE MORE than a decade ago, Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev seemed stuck with a reputation as one of those composers about whom almost no one wants to read. Biographies of him remained scarce, and when they did appear, they drew heavily on the same squalidly unreliable Soviet sources.

Yet Prokofiev's name has never ceased to sell concert tickets. Nearly all pianists tackle his "Third Piano Concerto" (he wrote five altogether) and some of his nine complete piano sonatas (he left another two unfinished). His "Classical Symphony" is in almost every orchestra's repertoire. In "Alexander Nevsky," he produced one of the most widely revered movie scores ever written. His most ambitious operas, "The Fiery Angel" and "War and Peace," once dismissed as unperformable, have often been revived of late. His "Romeo and Juliet" is a staple for any ballet company with the slightest claims to excellence. There can be few record collectors whose childhood musical experiences did not include "Peter and the Wolf."

Now, at last, scholarship is catching up with public taste. Today, the composer's youthful diaries, which prove that he ranks among the very few great musicians capable of scintillating prose, are readily accessible in English. Still more valuable is The People's Artist by Simon Morrison, a Princeton music professor with awesome research skills and an equally impressive ability to synthesize his findings in mostly straightforward, if occasionally over theoretical, language. That this volume bears plaudits on its dust jacket from Richard Taruskin, the most erudite and profound musicologist alive, indicates its exalted standards.

Among historical illiterates, there continues to fester the delusion--no doubt traceable, like so many sanctimonious legends, to Lord Acton's influence --that equates artistic liberty with political liberty. This delusion proclaims not only that the latter phenomenon is necessary for the former, but in extreme cases, that the latter is sufficient for the former. Never mind that, more than 70 years ago, Evelyn Waugh noted, "it so happens that most of the greatest art has appeared under systems of tyranny." Never mind, either, that the wittiest and best-known passage from the script of "The Third Man" is Orson Welles's observation about peaceful, democratic Switzerland having produced nothing more artistically significant than the cuckoo clock. Mere facts appear unable to disperse the fantastical belief that the highest ideal of artists has invariably been to spend their entire lives gargling "Free-daaaahm!" like Mel Gibson at the climax of "Braveheart." To those still in this fallacy's grip, Prokofiev represents a singular embarrassment. For in him we have an expatriate artist, his genius--no milder noun is adequate--at full stretch, who suddenly chose to resettle in the world's most murderous totalitarian state, who did so without this state's rulers either killing him physically or even--before his last years--creatively. What gives?

Professor Morrison sheds new light on Prokofiev's motives for going home. This reviewer, for one, had failed to appreciate the importance of a precedent to Prokofiev's return: the 1932 decision of Maxim Gorky--whom Prokofiev knew personally--to resume Soviet residence. Pure nostalgia also played a vital role. If Solzhenitsyn begrudged every day that he dwelt in banishment from his native soil, it is scarcely surprising that Prokofiev should have felt Mother Russia tugging at his heartstrings. (Born in 1891, Prokofiev possessed a priceless advantage that Solzhenitsyn lacked: adult experience of high tsarist civilization.)

The years that Prokofiev spent in France, Germany, and the U.S., from 1918 to 1936, were predominantly irksome and seldom lucrative, except when he fulfilled Soviet commissions in absentia. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks desperately itched to have him on Russian territory. From 1925, they tried every blandishment they could think of, with Education Commissar A.V. Lunacharsky playing a decisive role in the campaign to lure Prokofiev. Several concert tours of the USSR proved highly popular--much more so, in fact, than most of his performances in the West had been--and in 1936, despite the misgivings of his wife Lina (nee Codina), Prokofiev went back for good.

At first, he put a brave face on his new circumstances. Like most of us, he preferred security to autonomy. The Soviets allowed him to visit foreign lands, though his two sons remained in Moscow as hostages. During one trip he told an acquaintance, "Any government that lets me write my music in peace, publishes everything I compose before the ink is dry, and performs every note that comes from my pen is all right with me. In Europe we all have to fish for performances, cajole conductors and theater directors; in Russia they come to me." Much of this was mere whistling in the dark. In practice, he experienced difficulty having any of his major works performed, let alone paid for. He had timed his return atrociously--in the very year that the Moscow show trials had begun and in which Shostakovich had been declared persona non grata. Any music that might make the slightest demands on its listeners' intellects would be howled down by the officialdom as "formalist." That term, like its latter-day counterparts "racist", "fascist", and "homophobe," derived its force as an epithet from its very meaninglessness. Being indefinable, it was unanswerable.

Few if any eminent composers can match Prokofiev's sorry record of having major compositions repeatedly relegated to the indignity of posthumous premieres. Aggravating his difficulties was his masochistic devotion to writing opera, the very genre that inspired the fiercest Soviet censorship.

Somehow Prokofiev stayed sane, even after his friend and theatrical collaborator Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured, and shot. It is curious to discover his predilection for Christian Science, a strange creed for one as professedly cynical as he. Perhaps his consequent belief in the fundamental unreality of evil gave him a detachment, a strength of nerve, that he would not otherwise have managed against the regime's goons. He penned surprisingly little sycophantic trash, save when obliged to set to music such loathsome words as:
   There's a man behind the Kremlin
      walls
   All the land knows and loves him
   Your joy and happiness come from
      him
   Stalin! That is his great name!


It is not even clear how much, if anything, Prokofiev's abandonment of his earlier stylistic astringency owed to the Soviets' demands. The 1930s witnessed a mellowing out in the styles of several hitherto abrasive composers--Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud--operating independently of governmental fiat.

To the limited extent that career satisfaction had any meaning among Uncle Joe's subjects, Prokofiev enjoyed most of his artistic happiness through the war years and shortly afterward. As well as churning out agitprop soundtracks for films with names like "Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppe," he wrote some of his finest solo piano music, one of his best symphonies ("the Fifth"), and a worthwhile ballet ("Cinderella"). He left his first wife, took up with a poet named Mira Mendelsohn, whom he later married, and in 1947 scored a great critical as well as popular success when his "Sixth Symphony" had its first rendition.

Then catastrophe: in 1948 Andrei Zdhanov targeted Prokofiev--who hadn't properly recovered from injuries incurred in a fall three years earlier--along with Aram Khachaturian, of Saber Dance fame, and Shostakovich, for "formalism." Lina was sentenced to 20 years she served eight--in the gulag, for "espionage and betrayal of the homeland." She never saw her ex-husband again.

Prokofiev's formal apology to Zdhanov is painful to peruse, suggesting as it does a musically literate version of the Zinoviev-Bukharin "I am a Trotsky-Fascist wrecker" trope. Even in this extremity, though, Prokofiev avoided the grizzling of Shostakovich's mea culpa, which exhibited, as Morrison puts it, "language evocative of an ill-behaved schoolchild stuck in detention, writing the same line ad infinitum on a chalkboard." (Shostakovich, Morrison further observes--in a telling epigram aimed at the moral pretensions of that composer's current mythomaniac worshippers--"had perfected the art of actively resenting, rather than actively resisting, a regime whose identity was wrapped up with his own.") A stroke in 1949, probably hastened by Zdhanov's antics, further sapped Prokofiev's powers. While he continued to compose, the results were watery compared to his earlier ebullient work.

As if to prove that his gift for bad timing stayed with him to the end, he died on the same day as Stalin: March 5, 1953. Not all his compatriots ignored the artistic loss amid the political upheaval: the sister of famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich spent the whole day weeping. As Morrison relates, to all attempts at calming her, she responded with sobs, "protesting, after several hours of agony, 'Just leave me alone. I'm not weeping for Stalin, but Prokofiev.'"

May readers of The People's Artist also feel like weeping at the book's end. At times, it does not make for an easy read, partly because of its protagonist's depressing fate, partly because of its author's periodic tendency toward elaborate technical analysis without adequate notation. Transliterating eccentricity emerges now and then in Morrison's writing: "Bolshoy" rather than the conventional "Bolshoi" can at least be comprehended at a glance, but "Chaikovsky" rather than "Tchaikovsky" and "Potyomkin" rather than "Potemkin" seem foolish--we are mercifully spared the purists' demands that Prokofiev be spelt Prokof'yev. It is still a predominantly splendid tome and overdue homage to a composer of whom British critic Robert Layton rightly said, "He never lost his power to fascinate."

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of A Student's Guide to Music History.
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Author:Stove, R.J.
Publication:The American Conservative
Date:Mar 23, 2009
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