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THE PEOPLE'S ARTIST: Prokofiev's Soviet Years.

THE PEOPLE'S ARTIST: Prokofiev's Soviet Years

by Simon Morrison

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Hardcover: 512 pages and index

RRP: $US29.95

Till scarcely 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 frustratingly scarce, and when they did appear in any tongue, they depended again and again 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 at least 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 been often revived of late; his Romeo and Juliet is a staple of any ballet company with the slightest claims to excellence; while there can be few record-collectors indeed whose childhood musical experiences did not include Peter and the Wolf.

Now, at last, scholarship has caught up with what public taste has long discerned. The composer's youthful diaries are today readily accessible in English, proving that he ranks among the very few great musicians capable of scintillating prose. Still more valuable is the present survey, by a Princeton music professor with awesome research skills and equally impressive ability to synthesise 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 now alive (who is briefly quoted in the text), indicates its exalted standards.

Among historical illiterates there continues to fester the delusion--no doubt ultimately traceable, like so many sanctimonious legends, to Lord Acton's influence--which 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 Evelyn Waugh, more than 70 years ago, 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 Third Man's script is Orson Welles' 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 artists' highest ideal has invariably been to spend their entire lives gargling "Free-daaaaaaahm!", like Mel Gibson at Braveheart's climax.

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 to describe his best achievements--at full stretch, who suddenly chose to resettle in the most murderous totalitarian state that the world had thus far known; and who did so without this state's rulers either killing him physically or even (before his last years) killing him creatively. What gives?

Archival work by Professor Morrison, who has boldly gone where no non-Russian or even Russian specialist has gone before, sheds a new light upon Prokofiev's motives for his homecoming. This reviewer, for one, had previously failed to appreciate what Prokofiev owed to the most celebrated precedent for his return: the 1932 decision of Maxim Gorky--whom Prokofiev personally knew--to resume Soviet residence. Pure nostalgia played a vital role also. 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 own heartstrings. (Born in 1891, Prokofiev possessed, notwithstanding his dearth of obvious heroism, a priceless spiritual advantage that Solzhenitsyn lacked: adult experience of high tsarist civilisation.)

The years that Prokofiev spent in France, Germany and the U.S., from 1918 to 1936, were predominantly irksome and seldom creatively 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, Education Commissar A.V. Lunacharsky playing a decisive role in the campaign to lure Prokofiev home. Several concert tours of the USSR proved exceptionally popular--much more popular, in fact, than most of his performances in the West had been--and in 1936, despite the misgivings of his wife Lina (nee Codina), he 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 briefly allowed him to visit foreign lands (his two sons remained in Moscow as hostages), and during one such visit 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 theatre directors; in Russia they come to me."

Much of this was mere whistling in the dark. In practice, he experienced the most conspicuous difficulty having any of his major works performed, let alone paid for.

He had timed his return atrociously: it occurred in the course of the earliest Moscow show trials, and in the very year that Shostakovich had been declared persona non grata. Any music likely to make the slightest demands on its listeners' intellects would be howled down by officialdom as "formalist". The term "formalist", like its latter-day counterparts "racist" and "homophobic", derived its force as an epithet from its very meaninglessness. Being indefinable, it was naturally 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 which inspired the fiercest Soviet censorship. Somehow--even when his friend and theatrical collaborator Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot--Prokofiev stayed sane.

It is curious to discover his predilection for Christian Science, a strange creed for one as professedly cynical as he; and 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, William Walton, Arthur Bliss--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 film soundtracks with names like Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppe, he wrote some of his finest solo piano music, one of his finest 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 scored a great critical as well as popular success in 1947 when his Sixth Symphony had its premiere. Then catastrophe: in 1948 Andrei Zdhanov targeted Prokofiev--who had never properly recovered from injuries he incurred in a fall three years earlier--along with Aram Khatchaturian (of Sabre Dance fame) and Shostakovich, for (surprise, surprise) "formalism". Lina found herself sentenced to 20 years--of which 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 Professor Morrison puts it) "language evocative of an ill-behaved schoolchild stuck in detention, writing the same line ad infinitum on a chalkboard." (Shostakovich, Professor Morrison further observes--in a telling epigram aimed at the moral pretensions of that composer's current hero-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. Whilst he continued to compose, the results were all too watery compared with the ebullience of his previous 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: 5 March 1953. Not all his compatriots cravenly ignored the artistic loss amid the political upheaval. The sister of famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich spent the whole day weeping, as Professor 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'."

So may all readers of The People's Artist 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 tendencies towards elaborate technical analysis unsupported by any instances of printed musical notation. Transliterating eccentricity emerges now and then in Professor 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 affectations (we are mercifully spared the purists' demands that Prokofiev be spelt "Prokof'yev"). It is still a predominantly splendid tome, a long-overdue homage to a composer of whom British critic Robert Layton rightly said: "He never lost his power to fascinate."

Reviewed by R.J. Stove

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, and is the author of A Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books, 2008). This review first appeared (in slightly different form) in The American Conservative (23 March 2009), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the magazine publisher.
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Author:Stove, R.J.
Publication:National Observer - Australia and World Affairs
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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