Stephen Walsh

  • Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935 by David Nice
    Yale, 390 pp, £25.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 300 09914 2

On the whole, Soviet writers knew when they were putting their heads on the block. Composers often didn’t, and it’s precisely the innocence and uncertainty of music – that content and meaning tend to reduce to questions of style, and that musical scores are impenetrable and their performance ephemeral – which make the history of the relationship between music and politics so troublesome. The extreme cases are well known. Stravinsky never lived in the Soviet Union, visited it only once, in old age, and so was able all his creative life to maintain a purely formalist position about the ‘meaning’ of music without it ever being tested by the tangible menace of a censorship which rejected the style of that music and would certainly have taken steps to enforce that rejection if the composer had ever placed himself in its power. Shostakovich, on the other hand, was a Soviet citizen from the age of 11, broadly accepted a view of music as an art of engagement, but still fell foul in the 1930s of what amounted to a politics of petit bourgeois taste. Questions of value aside, his career was rich in paradox and irony: for instance, Stalin destroyed him just when his music was moving away from the experimental Modernism of the 1920s.

But in some ways the most interesting case musically is that of Prokofiev, a composer who in the past has attracted less critical attention, partly, I suppose, because his Soviet music offers little or nothing to the psycho-criticism that wants to hear Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony as ‘a musical portrait of Stalin’ (to quote Volkov’s Testimony). In fact, none of these composers was a political animal. They simply wanted to write music (try applying that distinction to Herzen or Tolstoy). Politics invaded their lives in various ways, however, and, in the cases of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, had an influence on what they wrote. Stravinsky of course remained immune – but that’s another story.

The first volume of David Nice’s Prokofiev biography stops when the 44-year-old composer settles in Moscow with his Spanish wife, Lina, and two young sons at the end of 1935. But it describes in detail the eight preceding years, during which Prokofiev lived and worked as a Westernised Russian making ‘business’ trips to his native land, increasingly drawn to the idea of resettling there. Like Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, he had fetched up in Western Europe after the war, but in essentially different circumstances which crucially affected his view of post-Revolutionary Russia. Unlike them, he was not a dvoryanin (gentry or lesser nobility): his father was an 1860s liberal from merchant stock, a trained agronomist employed as a land agent in the remote Donetz region of the Ukraine; his maternal grandfather was a liberated serf. Moreover, he was young, nine years younger than Stravinsky, 18 younger than Rachmaninov.

The contrast with Stravinsky was decisive. Prokofiev entered the St Petersburg Conservatory as a schoolboy of 13 in 1904, soon became known as a brilliant if wayward composer-pianist, and by the time he graduated in 1914 had established a spectacular local reputation through a series of keyboard works (including the first two piano concertos) which are still rightly accepted as compositions of genius. Stravinsky, by contrast, never studied at the Conservatory, was a working rather than a concert pianist, had no composition teaching until he was 21, and gave no significant local performances before he was 25. When he shot to fame with The Firebird in Paris in 1910, his Petersburg friends were rather put out and behaved as if he had no business being successful abroad. Largely because of this success (and that of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring over the next three years), he was living in Switzerland when war broke out, and had little reason – professionally at least – to hurry home.

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[*] Dnevnik by Sergey Prokofiev (Serge Prokofiev Estate, 3 vols, 812 pp., 890 pp. and 60 pp., $85, October 2002, 2 9518138 0 5, 2 9518138 1 3 and 2 9518138 2 1).