Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev.
Harlow Robinson's new book contains a representative sample of Sergey Prokofiev's correspondence with those who had the most influence on his career (excluding immediate family members): the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940), the music theorist Boris Asafiev (1884-1949), the film director Sergey Eisenstein (1898-1948), and the composer Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950). Personal letters are included from the composer to his adolescent sweethearts Vera Alpers and Eleonora Damskaya, the composer Vernon Duke (1903-1969), the soprano Nina Koschetz (1891-1965), the music historian Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), the violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), and the conductor Serge Koussevitsky (1874-1951). Lastly, the book includes letters to Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets russes, who promoted genius after genius, Russian and French, until his death in 1929. Most of the correspondence dates from the 1920s and 1930s, before Prokofiev returned from Europe to the Soviet Union, where his old rivalries were forgotten and he was forced to adapt
to what he sardonically termed "new conditions."
Although Robinson has devoted much of his career to Prokofiev, writing a dissertation on the literary sources of his operas in 1980 and a biography in 1987, this volume does not show it. The selection of letters and the basic plan of the book raise serious questions about its overall scholarly value. Robinson fails to mention that he had only limited access to Prokofiev's letters when he made his choices (an issue of major importance to those interested in filling in the details of Prokofiev's life), and those that are included are subject to significant cuts. The end result is an oddly whitewashed image of the composer.
Paradoxically, the book celebrates Prokofiev's composing and performing less than his literary and verbal talents: his nearfluent English, French, and German; his ability to create librettos from diverse sources - texts by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy (Russia's most beloved novelists) and by Valentin Kataev and Boris Polevoy (two Soviet propagandists); and his unique epistolary style. For this reason, Robinson elected to remove what he terms the "excessively technical musical analysis" (p. xix) from the letters. The problem is that there is no "technical" analysis in them; Robinson instead excised information about Prokofiev's creative methods, information to which readers have not yet had access in English. For example, Robinson's translation of a 30 May 1929 letter to Myaskovsky omits Prokofiev's description of his reuse of themes from the ballet The Prodigal Son (1929) in the Fourth Symphony (1930). In contrast, his translation of an 11 October 1930 letter to Koussevitsky retains a passage where Prokofiev admits to reusing music from the ballet in the symphony, but stresses that the two works are wholly independent of each other. In comparison with the original letters, these and other inconsistencies in Robinson's editorial process stand out.
The translations per se are accurate - the product of years of work and of collaboration between Robinson and his students - but the introduction and footnotes tend to be insubstantial. Robinson makes several bald generalizations about Russian and Soviet musicians. For example, he calls Pyotr II'yich Tchaikovsky's and Dmitry Shostakovich's letters "self-doubting, subjective, and guilt-ridden" (p. xvii). Such a trivialization and conflation of the writings of two very different composers ignores the fact that their letters reflect their own psyches less than those of their addressees and suggests a disregard for current musicological research into their lives. Later, we are told that "Leonid Sabaneyev (1881-1968) and Aleksandr Grechaninov (1864-1956) were composers who had emigrated from Russia; they represented a very conservative and traditional aesthetic" (p. 274). The former was actually a music theorist and an unabashed proponent of Alexander Skryabin's music. The latter was a Wagnerian who gained notoriety when his opera Sister Beatrice (1911) was banned at the behest of the Orthodox Synod for defaming the sacred image of the Madonna. Robinson is correct in stating that Prokofiev saw them both as conservative. He might also have noted that Prokofiev did so out of selfdefense, as he himself did not wish to be seen as conservative by Igor Stravinsky, his rival in Paris and an icon of musical modernism.
The collection is not intended to chart Prokofiev's competition with Stravinsky. Instead, Robinson attempts to demonstrate that the composer rose "above feelings of envy" and that Prokofiev's "assessment" of Stravinsky's music was "mostly positive" (p. xviii). This would likely be news to Stravinsky, as Prokofiev's so-called assessment is only positive in a few letters. It would be unfair to accuse Robinson of altering the facts, but his analysis of the content of the letters certainly glosses over them. As Malcolm Brown has noted, Prokofiev's letters from the 1920s "contain frequent gibes at his competitor's new works, often side by side with professional praise" ("Stravinsky and Prokofiev: Sizing up the Competition," in Confronting Stravinsky, ed. Jann Pasler [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986], 47). Robinson does not include the Prokofiev-Stravinsky letters in his collection, but his translation of the Prokofiev-Myaskovsky correspondence supports Brown's observation. Of Petrushka (1911), Prokofiev wrote, "[I]f for the most important episodes [Stravinsky] cannot compose music, but just sticks in whatever is handy, then he is musically bankrupt" (p. 235). Of Apollon musagete (1928), he added that "The material is absolutely pitiful and on top of that stolen from the most disgrace-ful pockets: Gounod, and Delibes, and Wagner, even Minkus" (pp. 274-75). In proper context, these remarks indicate how unhappy he was living in Stravinsky's shadow, a factor in his decision to leave Europe for Soviet Russia.
One disappointment of the book is the absence of any new information on that fateful decision. As he did in his Prokofiev biography, Robinson describes the composer as apolitical: "The letters assembled and translated in this volume provide ample evidence of Prokofiev's political views - or rather, his lack of any. Music was his god, dictator, and raison d'etre" (p. xiv). This follows Robinson's harsh criticism of an essay by Richard Taruskin ("Prokofiev, Hail . . . and Farewell?" New York Times, 21 April 1991, sec. 2), though he does not give Taruskin's name or provide a citation. Taruskin criticizes Prokofiev for his creative service to Soviet power and for squandering his talents; after everything that happened to the composer in later years, the critique is one he might have accepted. Robinson simply calls Taruskin's essay a "trendy, 'politically correct' analysis" (p. xiv). And he avoids the political issues raised by the letters he decided to include - issues such as Prokofiev's knowledge of Soviet censorship and of the impediments Soviet citizens confronted when trying to gain permission to travel abroad. If Asafiev and Myaskovsky did not tell him about the harshness of life at home, he saw it firsthand when he toured Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1927. Tragically, he thought (or was careerist enough to convince himself) that his artistic reputation would permit him to transcend Soviet political realities.
The view of the composer presented by Robinson contrasts with that of Alfred Schnittke, who, despite emphasizing Prokofiev's sunny disposition, stressed that he "had to know the terrible truth of his time." In a 1990 lecture, Schnittke stated that Prokofiev "saw and heard the world differently: nature evidently granted him an outlook and a way of dealing with things different from the majority. The dark abysses of the present were never devoid of the all-encompassing sun - light remained over everything! This is entirely amazing: to whom can one compare him? His last composition, the 7th Symphony, is as though written by a young man" (Gedanken zu Sergej Prokofjew [Hamburg: Hans Sikorski, 1990], 7-8). The last line is obviously ironic, if not Aesopian, language. In his last years, Prokofiev was obliged to compose optimistic works in accord with the official Soviet arts policy of socialist realism. He retreated to themes of youth not as a reflection of his sunny disposition, but out of a desperate need to conform. Following his denunciation for formalism in 1948 in an ignoble music show trial, the Stalinist regime banned performances of his music and took away his stipend. Prokofiev lived his last five years in fear; the Seventh Symphony was an effort to win redemption. Taruskin comments that Prokofiev posthumously earned a Lenin Prize for it, "but only after a substitute, 'optimistic' ending had been demanded and supplied" (Defining Russia Musicatly [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997], 98).
The tragedy of Prokofiev's final years affirms that he was a victim of an inhuman government. He was a member of the old intelligentsia; Soviet cultural authorities did not trust him, and when the cage door closed, he discovered that the nation of his youth no longer existed. Robinson states that, in order to suppress the facts about the arrest and murder of Meyerhold (during work on Prokofiev's 1939 opera Semyon Kotko) and the arrest of Prokofiev's wife Lina, "Western scholars were not allowed to see many materials in Soviet archives - especially letters - until relatively recently" (p. xviii). The remark implies that the archives are now all open, when in fact dozens of documents pertaining to Prokofiev's return to Soviet Russia remain off limits. I refer to items such as fund 1929, list 1, folders 332 and 655 of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art: a notebook with autobiographical notes written between 1934 and 1936, and fifty-three pages of letters and telegrams sent by Lina to the composer between 22 February 1936 and 12 October 1952. One archivist told me that .just after Prokofiev's death, Tikhon Khrennikov (b. 1913), the general secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, headed a committee that prohibited access to these documents for a period of fifty years because of their sensitive contents. Robinson could thus rely only on open archives and Soviet editions of the letters for his book. Prokofiev's son Oleg assured Robinson that the cuts in the letters in Soviet editions are minor (p. xix). That he depended on these editions in six chapters nonetheless indicates that the sources for his book are not the most accurate or complete.
Robinson's book does not achieve the result he desired. Far from leading "to a greater understanding of Prokofiev's frequently misunderstood life" or providing further "insight into his creative process and aesthetic principles" (p. xx), it misleads the reader by misrepresenting the composer. Those interested in the complete story of Prokofiev's life - at least how he depicted it to his colleagues - will have to wait for the full edition of the letters. When it will appear is difficult to predict, in view of limited research funds and the drastic curtailment in academic publishing in Russia. But the archival work will undoubtedly begin fifty years to the day after Prokofiev's premature death: 5 March 2003.
SIMON MORRISON Princeton University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1999|
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