The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years 
by Simon Morrison.
Oxford, 491 pp., £18.99, November 2008, 978 0 19 518167 8
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It is generally assumed that Soviet composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich were forced by the regime to simplify their style and write ‘life-affirming’ music that conformed to the canons of Socialist Realism. Most people think this was bad for their music, though a few hold the contrary. Now comes the shocker from Simon Morrison, a Princeton musicologist: Prokofiev wanted to write simple, life-affirming music because he was a Christian Scientist.

Sergei Prokofiev, born in 1891 and schooled in St Petersburg, left Russia in 1918 after graduating from the Conservatory. In the 1920s, when he was building his international career, Paris was his base. On his first visit back to Soviet Russia in 1927, he was delighted with the Leningrad production of his second opera, Love for Three Oranges, and pleased to be approached by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the renowned experimental director, about a possible production of The Gambler, his first opera. The idea of moving his operations to the Soviet Union was probably mooted at this time, but his enthusiasm waned during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1920s, when the proletarian music organisation RAPM reigned supreme and his maiden attempt at a ‘Soviet’ theme, in the ballet Le Pas d’acier, was panned. The dissolution of RAPM, along with the other militant proletarian organisations in the arts, by Central Committee decree in April 1932, was an encouraging sign: ‘It is time to come more often and to stay longer,’ Prokofiev wrote to his old friend and lifelong supporter, the composer Nikolai Myaskovsky.

More visits followed. Prokofiev was energetically wooed by Levon Atovmyan, a music official with a revolutionary past, who initially approached him – as well as other émigré musicians with an international reputation – at the suggestion of the Foreign Ministry. The Soviet ambassador to Paris followed up, making ‘many promises’ about the ‘privileges’ awaiting Prokofiev in the Soviet Union, including ‘housing, commissions, performances, and income that would relieve him of the need to tour’, as Prokofiev’s wife, Lina, later recalled. Commissions started to flow even before his final return and the offer was tempting. ‘The year 1935’ – when he was still based in Paris – ‘was one of the most lucrative of his career, the bulk of his income coming from Soviet sources,’ Morrison writes. His European and American career was doing well but it was a struggle to get his operas performed and he was disappointed at his failure to topple Stravinsky from his pre-eminent position in the contemporary music world.

Of course there were disadvantages to a return to the Soviet Union, as he well knew: two cousins with whom he was in close contact were under arrest. In addition, as one of his Paris friends recalled, ‘he had become accustomed to European comforts and his wife, Lina Ivanovna, was such a European woman that it was difficult to imagine her in a Soviet context.’ (Lina Codina, a cosmopolitan and multilingual singer, was born in Madrid and brought up partly in the United States and Cuba; her Russian connections were tenuous, though she had visited her Russian-speaking Polish grandfather in the Caucasus as a child.) ‘When you come to the USSR, the first impression is of uncouthness,’ Prokofiev wrote in his diary in April 1933. To be sure, ‘under this uncouthness you begin to discern interesting, inspiring people.’

Politics was not a factor in his decision to return. Unlike Shostakovich, he had never had any revolutionary sympathies, though he doesn’t appear to have had any strong feelings against the Revolution either. His overriding concern was to find the place in the world that provided the optimal conditions for his work. As he told his old friend Vladimir Dukelsky, a Russian émigré who, as Vernon Duke, had made a successful career as a Broadway composer,

I care nothing for politics – I’m a composer first and last. 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 – I can hardly keep up with the demand.

Prokofiev would no doubt have preferred to keep two home bases, Paris and Moscow, had the authorities not given him to understand after a few years of courtship that he would have to make a firm decision for Moscow or lose his access to Soviet commissions. Travelling had become a way of life for him, and he seems to have assumed that he would be able to continue making regular trips abroad. As he was preparing to leave Paris, there were worrying signs of change in the political weather. In January 1936, Pravda published an editorial entitled ‘A Mess instead of Music’, attacking Shostakovich’s new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, for its modernist tendencies (known in the Soviet Union as ‘formalism’). Lina was worried, and several of their friends warned them that the anti-formalism campaign was likely to spread. But it was too late to draw back easily; and in the end Prokofiev decided to read the situation in a positive light: Shostakovich might be a ‘formalist’, but he, evidently, was not; why else would the Soviets be wooing him? ‘In the months ahead,’ Morrison writes, ‘Prokofiev allowed himself to believe that, with Shostakovich under a cloud, he had automatically become the pre-eminent Soviet composer’ – an interesting transposition of his old competitive relationship with Stravinsky. It was a bad misreading of the way things worked in the Soviet Union.

Prokofiev, Lina and their two sons made the move to Moscow in March 1936. The authorities immediately made good on one of their promises by offering them a two-storey house on the Garden Ring Road: celebrity accommodation, comparable with the house Maxim Gorky had been given when he returned from Capri a few years earlier. But Prokofiev unexpectedly turned it down, giving the unsocialist explanation that ‘I can’t afford it.’ (Unfortunately, Morrison, usually a reliable provider of financial detail, does not say what rent was being asked: it was often the case in the Soviet Union that real luxuries, offered only to a select and well-paid few, were priced absurdly low.) Prokofiev may later have regretted this decision: good apartments were in very short supply in Moscow, and he never got one he really liked.

Now came the challenge of becoming a Soviet composer. Apolitical as he was, Prokofiev nevertheless seems genuinely to have welcomed the idea. He had renounced the ‘enfant terrible brashness’ of his youthful style some years earlier, opting for what he described as a ‘new simplicity’, which in effect meant more melody, structures that were easily grasped, and a stronger tonal foundation. Morrison argues convincingly that in advocating simplicity Prokofiev was expressing his own credo rather than toeing an official line. ‘What is needed now is to create for the masses in a manner that allows the music to remain good,’ he reported in his diary in May 1933. ‘My previous, melodic pieces and my search for a “new simplicity” have prepared me well for this task.’ This was fully in tune with what he wrote for Izvestia the following year:

I believe the type of music needed is what one might call ‘light-serious’ or ‘serious-light’ music. It is by no means easy to find the right idiom for such music. It should be primarily melodious, and the melody would be clear and simple without, however, becoming repetitive or trivial … the same applies to the technique, the form – it too must be clear and simple, but not stereotyped.

Prokofiev and his wife had converted to Christian Science in the mid-1920s, and it was Christian Science that provided the basis for his belief that art should represent the principle of the good, that infinite force which – as he wrote in his diary – ‘will necessarily triumph over the finite and temporary phenomenon of evil’. Translated into Soviet terms, this meant that he was in favour of the ‘positive’ and ‘life-affirming’ principles of Socialist Realism. Some of his intellectual friends in the Soviet Union found this hard to swallow: from their standpoint ‘life-affirmation’ had a dreary, official ring, and they lacked the transcendental framework that religion provided for Prokofiev and socialism for the Soviets. Prokofiev recorded a conversation with an old Leningrad friend, the philologist Boris Demchinsky, in which they talked at cross-purposes, until Prokofiev introduced the idea of God, at which point Demchinsky threw up his hands and abandoned the argument. Demchinsky, Prokofiev wrote,

tries to mount an attack on cheerfulness and joyfulness. When neither science nor public opinion provides solutions, music should express the general anxiety. I: the more the sea rages, the more precious a hard rock among the waves becomes. He: but no one will understand the meaning of this rock; besides, what is this feeling of calm based on – on health, self-assurance, individual personality? I: on the emphasis on God. He (immediately changing his tone): well, that’s a different matter.

Prokofiev now not only embraced ‘the new simplicity’ but also showed complete readiness to use Soviet subject matter and even to set Soviet ideological texts. If this seems odd in so apolitical a man, it may best be understood if one sees Prokofiev as the 20th-century equivalent of an 18th-century composer working for noble or ecclesiastical patrons and doing his best to satisfy their requirements. He could make jokes or complain about particular requirements (just as Mozart did), but he was quite uninterested in intellectual debate about them. Like his 18th-century counterparts, but in sharp contrast to the Romantics, he was willing to hack his work around, if that was necessary to get it performed, to recycle parts of earlier works, and do all kinds of cutting and pasting. As the conductor Samuil Samosud recalled, Prokofiev’s desire to see his ill-starred War and Peace staged was ‘so persistent, so unshakeable, that he was actually willing to cede to all manner of editorial modifications, abbreviations and cuts if only it made it to the theatre’.

Sometimes Prokofiev’s way of doing things fitted perfectly in the Soviet context. Peter and the Wolf, composed to a libretto featuring Soviet Young Pioneers written by Prokofiev himself, was one of the great successes of his early Moscow years; his music for Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky was another. On other occasions his sincere attempts to fit the requirements of his patrons worked less well: the problem was that Soviet-flavoured simplicity, coming from a sophisticated European like Prokofiev, could look like sarcasm or parody. When he used the ultra-Soviet Boris Polevoy’s Story of a Real Man as the basis for an opera, Myaskovsky worried privately that it ‘will be taken for a joke’. His choice of Valentin Katayev’s I Am a Son of the Working People was similarly worrying, especially when he invited ex-Count Aleksiy Tolstoy to write the libretto. Even Prokofiev’s first (fully serious) attempt to write appropriately for a Soviet occasion, his Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of October, set to texts by Lenin and Stalin, seemed over the top to critics.

The fact that, for understandable reasons, nobody would come right out with such objections added to Prokofiev’s confusion about what he had done wrong. He was perplexed, for example, at the very negative reaction when he and Sergei Radlov decided to give their ballet Romeo and Juliet a happy ending. Radlov, who had a revolutionary ‘left art’ background, saw Shakespeare’s play as a ‘Komsomol-like’ text about ‘young, strong and progressive people battling against feudal traditions and feudal outlooks on marriage and family’; Prokofiev liked the happy ending both as a Christian Scientist who believed that the bad things in life are contingent and temporary, and for the ‘purely choreographic’ reason that it was a ballet and the dead can’t dance. It was strange, Prokofiev commented, that Soviet critics had been ‘more papal than the pope’ at the thought of changing a Shakespearean text. Surely a happy ending was the ultimate in life-affirming Socialist Realism? Soviet officials cringed, however, at what they feared would be perceived as a reductio ad absurdum.

During the two decades Prokofiev lived in the Soviet Union, his reputation and material situation had their ups and downs. There were difficulties in the early years, partly because of the anti-formalism campaign and partly because the music world took time to get used to him. Materially, there was a sharp change for the worse in 1938, when he had to exchange his external passport for an internal one, not valid for foreign travel without special permission; after that, he never again made a trip abroad (though the war and his postwar health problems were presumably partly responsible). The war and immediate postwar years, 1943-47, were his peak period of productivity and success. Then came the collapse of his health, quickly followed by the collapse of his reputation and material circumstances as a result of the Zhdanovshchina, another campaign against Western-influenced ‘formalism’, this time with Prokofiev as well as Shostakovich as targets.

The sharp decline in Prokofiev’s standing in 1948, the year of the Zhdanovshchina, Morrison writes, owed ‘less to ideological considerations than the vagaries of policymakers, factionalism in the bureaucracy, and financial crises’. Unlike many musicologists, Morrison understands that ideology and Politburo policy were only part of the story. Noting that ‘for elite artists living under Stalin, official approbation tended to alternate with official condemnation,’ he argues that these shifts had complex causes: ‘Vacillations in cultural policies affected their careers, but so, too, did disputes within the cultural agencies, miscommunication between those agencies and other tiers of government, and personal rivalries.’ He is good, too, about giving the material side of the picture, often omitted in Western accounts more focused on ideology. For Prokofiev, the years immediately after 1948 were nightmarish not only because of his public whipping by Zhdanov but because of the financial consequences. An audit of the Composers’ Union slush fund, Muzfond, headed by Prokofiev’s friend Atovmyan, revealed embarrassing details of Muzfond’s generosity, notably the large interest-free loan that enabled Prokofiev to buy a dacha. At a time when commissions and performance and publishing royalties had temporarily dried up, the composer was faced with a demand for the immediate repayment of 180,000 roubles.

Prokofiev in no way fits the ‘dissident’ stereotype that is often, rightly or wrongly, applied to Shostakovich; there are no records of anti-regime talk at Prokofiev’s table such as we have (courtesy of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony) about Shostakovich’s. Yet Prokofiev never fully acquired the language and reflexes of Homo sovieticus. ‘The Union of Soviet Composers has not helped me in my creative work,’ he wrote flatly in response to a newspaper questionnaire in 1936. Three years later, he wrote a speech (admittedly never delivered) which started with the bald assertion that ‘Soviet art, despite its enormous breadth, is declining in quality,’ a development he attributed to the fact that ‘the official directive concerning the struggle against formalism has been carried out too zealously.’ He was willing to do self-criticism when self-criticism was required – but, intentionally or not, he never did it right. How infuriating it must have been to Soviet cultural officials, awaiting the standard recognition of ideological error after Zhdanov’s critique, when Prokofiev acknowledged a possible error of musical judgment only (‘a preponderance of recitative over cantilena’ in his operas). And on top of that, he was so arrogant. Reluctantly present to hear Zhdanov’s criticisms in 1948, Prokofiev (in a story Morrison says is not necessarily apocryphal) sat chatting to his neighbour throughout the speech, which provoked Matvei Shkiriatov, the party’s top political-control man, and incidentally one who took himself and his job very seriously, to rebuke him:

‘Listen. This concerns you.’ ‘Who are you?’ asked Prokofiev. ‘My name isn’t relevant. But know this: when I tell you something you’d better pay heed.’ ‘I never pay attention to comments from people who haven’t been introduced to me,’ Prokofiev threw back, unfazed.

Zhdanov, overhearing this exchange from the podium, reportedly burst out laughing. My guess is that he was laughing at Shkiriatov.

If Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s table talk differed, it partly depended on who was sitting at the table. Prokofiev’s marriage to Lina was already in trouble in the late 1930s. Although she had loyally accompanied him to Moscow, the move had not suited her, personally or professionally, and she was much more obviously rattled by the arrests of friends and restrictions on foreign travel than the imperturbable (or poker-faced) Prokofiev. In 1938, he met Mira Mendelson, a 26-year-old literature student, at a health resort, and in 1941 he left Lina and his sons to live with her.

Mira came from a Jewish family: her parents were both party members, and her father, Abram Mendelson, headed the Institute of Economics. Because of the bitterness attending the break-up of the first marriage, Mira has been the subject of all kinds of hostile rumour, which Morrison rightly ignores: though he obviously does not much care for her, he does his best to give her her due. Mira became Prokofiev’s working partner and librettist, as well as his wife; and after his health deteriorated she also served as his nurse. She was very close to her parents, especially her father, and Prokofiev seems to have got on with him well, too. In fact, in 1946, when the Mendelsons received an extra room, making theirs a three-room apartment, Prokofiev and Mira moved in (though they spent a lot of time outside Moscow at their dacha). All her life, Mira seems to have been strongly dependent on her father (they died in the same year, 1968), and some of this seems to have rubbed off on Prokofiev. It was reportedly Mendelson who had the idea that Prokofiev should write an opera based on War and Peace. It was he who was summoned by Mira in the middle of the night when Prokofiev had a bad turn, and he who (as a powerful institute director) provided the car and driver that regularly took Prokofiev, too weak to use public transport, out to the dacha.

As Prokofiev’s life was becoming sovietised, at least in the everyday sense, as a result of his second marriage, the opposite was happening to his first wife and sons. Unlike Prokofiev and Mira and most others in their circle, Lina refused to be evacuated from Moscow during the war, fearing to lose the apartment, and she and her sons had a very hard time, despite Prokofiev’s attempts to help from afar with money and food. After the war, when Prokofiev tried to get a divorce to marry Mira, the Soviet courts bizarrely refused to recognise the validity of his first marriage, making Lina’s position yet more precarious. She spent more and more time in the company of foreign diplomats, a dangerous habit in late Stalinist Russia. In February 1948, the month of Prokofiev’s fall from grace, she was arrested as a foreign spy and given a 20-year sentence. By the time she was released from the Gulag in 1956, Prokofiev was already dead. Adding to the existing bitterness between the two wives was the fact that, as a result of the court’s decision on the invalidity of the first marriage, Lina had no legal claim on his estate. Finally, under Khrushchev, Lina’s as well as Mira’s claims were recognised. But it was not until 1974, when she was in her late seventies, that Lina was allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

The biographical story as I have told it is abstracted from Morrison’s book, but you have to work to get at it. The People’s Artist is closer to a source book than a straightforward biography, and biography is in any case only the author’s secondary interest (‘biographical detail … is provided where it pertains to Prokofiev’s creative activities’). The index is good enough to locate most of the details, but it is nevertheless frustrating not to be told more about Prokofiev’s personal life – for example, about his friendship with the loyal and wise Myaskovsky. Despite some scattered evidence throughout the book, Prokofiev’s (changing?) personal and professional relationship with Shostakovich is never analysed and remains a mystery.

What Morrison sets out to do is to ‘document’ Prokofiev’s ‘artistic rather than his personal decision making’. To this end, he has done a tremendous amount of work in the various Prokofiev archives and is able to give a detailed account of the process whereby each individual work was commissioned, composed, accepted for production or performance, orchestrated, revised (often many times) and reworked in response to criticism or the requirements of directors. All this is done with a lot of detailed musical analysis, but without the musical examples that are so helpful to the reader in, for example, David Nice’s study of Prokofiev’s pre-Soviet years, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935 (2003), or Richard Taruskin’s Defining Russia Musically (1997). This unfortunate decision was perhaps the publisher’s rather than the author’s. Even if you know the work and understand the technical language, musical analysis without examples is hard to follow. Other readers will find their attention wandering in long paragraphs dealing with such matters as a ‘teetering between C sharp and C natural, the mediants of the competing tonal domains’ and ‘contrapuntal imitation at the tritone rather than the fifth’.

Prokofiev famously died on the same day as Stalin, 5 March 1953. This has stimulated many rhetorical flights, among them the composer Alfred Schnittke’s (imagined?) description of the two funerals, written in the glasnost years: ‘Along an almost deserted street that ran parallel to the seething mass hysterically mourning the passing of Stalin, there moved in the opposite direction a small group of people bearing on their shoulders the coffin of the greatest Russian composer of the time.’ Morrison keeps his distance from this picture. Having lived with Prokofiev, at least vicariously, as the scholarly equivalent of his valet, he is not attracted to the romantic image of him as the suffering Artist against the System. Prokofiev may have died a disappointed man but the grounds of his disappointment were practical: illness and bureaucratic problems getting in the way of his composing; frustration over the failure to get his great opera War and Peace properly staged (this complicated saga lasted more than a decade and takes up four column inches in the index). His final regret, expressed to Mira in his last days, could have been voiced by Mozart, Schubert or any other composer who felt cut off in the midst of his life’s work: ‘But I could have written so much more.’

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