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.

Prokofiev had visited Paris and London in the summer of 1913 (though Nice is wrong in saying that Stravinsky played The Firebird to him on that trip; it must have been in St Petersburg the previous October); but that was as a ‘cultural tourist’, in Nice’s phrase. His music was not performed, and when Diaghilev began taking an interest in him the following year, it was on the strength of private play-throughs, notably of the Second Piano Concerto. He came West again in 1915, but was in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out, ‘“taking refuge from time to time behind projecting walls when the shooting became too intense”, but still enjoying, like thousands of middle-class citizens, the unstoppable cultural life of the city’ (the interior quotation is from his autobiography). When the Bolsheviks took over in October 1917 he was in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, but eventually got back to Moscow, where the Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky heard him play his Suggestion diabolique at the Poets’ Café, ‘quivering with eagerness like a flame . . . the whole café seemed to be on fire; it was as if the very beams and rafters were in flames yellow as the composer’s hair, and we stood there ready to be burned alive in the fire of his astounding music.’ Even when Prokofiev slipped out of Petrograd in May 1918 on what turned out to be the last Trans-Siberian Express to reach Vladivostok, his plan was for a half-year US tour, after which he would return home. That the six months would turn into nine years was perhaps foreseeable, but it certainly was not – by him – foreseen.

His abiding memory of early Soviet Russia, as he trekked across America and back and forth through France, Germany and Austria, never quite settling down as a Westerner nor ever quite finding a pretext to go home, must have been of a land where an aggressive, volatile, challenging Modernism such as his would find its natural habitat once the social and economic conditions had settled down enough for musical institutions to flourish. This was also the general view, and until nearly the end of the 1920s, when the RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) concept of mass, proletarian music finally asserted itself, it could even have come true. While the music Prokofiev was writing, for Diaghilev and others, mellowed perceptibly towards what he himself called a ‘new simplicity’, in works such as The Prodigal Son and the Fifth Piano Concerto, some of his most caustic and strident Western scores were being programmed in Russia. Persimfans – the conductorless Moscow orchestra – played the Scythian Suite twice in 1926 ‘with unwavering and great success’, the orchestra reported; that same year, The Love for Three Oranges (first staged in Chicago in 1921) was given a brilliant Meyerholdian production by Sergei Radlov at the Maryinsky; and when Prokofiev himself returned in January 1927, his first Moscow concert included most of the long concert suite from the Diaghilev ballet Chout, while his solo recitals contained four of the (so far) five piano sonatas and the fiendish, relentless Toccata of 1912, all done to huge audience acclaim.

The point about all this is that Prokofiev’s Modernism – the brash, dissonant, frankly alienating style of his early piano music, the first three Diaghilev ballet scores and the Second Symphony – had always been as much a manner as an integrated assault on tradition. The early works were like a well-dressed, well-spoken young man who comes into the drawing-room and tells the ladies to get stuffed. Behind all the barbs, the face-pulling and foot-stamping, there survives an essentially classical discourse, an orthodox approach to phrase structure and rhythm, even to texture and harmony – a language strikingly different, once you examine it closely, from the radicalism of Stravinsky or even Debussy, where the old grammar is fragmented into so many Einsteinian ‘events’, then reassembled into a new syntax which, even at its most crystalline, preserves something that to conventional thinking remains both arcane and problematical. Prokofiev’s sideswipes at good musical behaviour are often disconcerting, often exhilarating, nearly always huge fun, but they are not a new form of expression, which is why they yielded so often and so easily to a kind of bourgeois popularism long before RAPM was much more than a glint in Stalin’s eye. The Classical Symphony and the lyrical D major Violin Concerto both date from 1917, the fifth piano sonata, with its limpid C major opening, from 1923, the (admittedly somewhat bland) Sinfonietta originally from 1909. On the other hand, the ballet original of the Scythian Suite (Ala and Lolly) almost certainly began life as a conscious imitation of The Rite of Spring, while the rackety and over-complicated Second Symphony (1924) was simply Prokofiev’s attempt to out-clank Honegger’s steam-engine tone poem, Pacific 231.

By the mid-1920s he was beginning to grow out of this sort of thing. His opera The Fiery Angel (1927) adopts the ‘outmoded’ Wagnerian technique of the leitmotif and eventually provides material for an excellent, gritty but perfectly penetrable Third Symphony, while the Fourth, written for Boston in 1930 and derived partly from The Prodigal Son, displays a highly individual neo-romanticism at a moment when Prokofiev had not made up his mind to return to Russia. Nice claims that he knew in advance about the ideological trouble being stirred up by RAPM at the time of his second visit in autumn 1929. Yet it seems doubtful that he had any idea of what this would entail musically or what it would lead to politically – things as yet unrecognised even by those on the ground. Even after the Congress of Soviet Writers in August 1934 – by which time Prokofiev was frequently in Moscow though still based in Paris – he blithely supposed that the new doctrine of Socialist Realism merely meant a new kind of serious music which would take account of the fact that (as he told Izvestiya that autumn) ‘in the Soviet Union music is addressed to millions of people who formerly had little or no contact with music.’ He envisaged a ‘light-serious’ or ‘serious-light’ music, ‘primarily melodious’ (no problem for Prokofiev, one of the great tunesmiths), and in a ‘clear and simple, but not stereotyped’ form. His first Soviet project, the music for the 1933 film Lieutenant Kijé, was exactly the sort of thing: tuneful, distinctive, modern, light-serious. Soon he would transfer these qualities to the serious-light mode, in the beautiful G minor Violin Concerto, and above all in Romeo and Juliet, that brilliant fusion of post-Imperial romanticism and scuttling, unpredictable Prokofievism. Just how unaware its composer was of the real politicisation of aesthetics after 1934 is grimly apparent from the fact that he took up residence in Moscow exactly a month before Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, which at last made plain to musicians how little their future well-being was going to depend on their ability to compose what Prokofiev had understood as ‘music that would correspond both in form and content to the grandeur of the epoch’ – the kind of remark optimistic young Russian composers had been making for thirty years.

The argument that Prokofiev’s revived romanticism and new simplicity in the late 1920s served to attract him to the Soviet Union, rather than being a product of his return there, has been made before. It was made persuasively, for instance, by Prokofiev’s excellent earlier biographer Harlow Robinson. Nice is more equivocal, and makes it clear that Prokofiev was also drawn back to his native country by the disagreeable recognition that, as the Western market for musical enfants terribles began to shrink after the 1929 crash, and especially by 1935, he was actually more appreciated, more fêted, at home. Stravinsky was affected in the same way, but having cut his ties with Russia and having – as he felt – no reason to expect anything but envy and recrimination if he went back there, he reacted differently. His eventual move West parallelled Prokofiev’s move East, but it was a luckier choice. While Stravinsky was remarrying (in 1940, his first wife having died in France in 1939) and, after an anxious war, entering on a productive and in the main prosperous late period as a US citizen, Prokofiev was abandoning Lina, in Moscow, setting up house with a somewhat colourless student half his age, and gradually succumbing to the tawdry dictates of Socialist Realism and the destructive pressures of Soviet life. After 1938 he never left the USSR. When the war was over he – along with all other serious Soviet artists – became the object of vicious and sustained ideological attack by the Party Central Committee under the direction of Andrei Zhdanov. After 1948, the year of the so-called Zhdanovshchina, he composed practically nothing of value; his health declined steeply and he died, with horrible aptness, on the same day as Stalin in March 1953, aged only 61.

It’s easy enough, with hindsight, to see the plummeting trajectory of these last 15 years as the inevitable outcome of Prokofiev’s musical direction in the early and mid-1930s combined with his extreme political naivety. But the issue is much more complex than that. Some of his strongest works were written after 1938: the last four piano sonatas, the Flute Sonata, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Cello Symphony-Concerto, Alexander Nevsky and the operas Betrothal in a Monastery and War and Peace. They generally reflect the simplification of his style after about 1930 but are not artistically compromised, any more than are Bartók’s last works (written when he was in the US during the war, and also in poor health). They may not please those who regard Modernism as a one-way street to the increasingly disagreeable, but it is precisely the question begged by that point of view that they raise, perhaps decisively.

Nice’s Life so far does not and probably (once complete) will not displace Robinson’s, but it sheds a different sort of light. Its misfortune is that, while it is clearly intended as an up-to-the-minute account by a Russianist who is at the same time a musicologist (which Robinson is not), it went to press at almost exactly the moment when Prokofiev’s son Sviatoslav at last completed the mammoth task of deciphering the composer’s pre-Soviet diaries,[*] too late for Nice to do much more than scan them and include a handful of references. One can only sympathise with what must be his profound frustration over this mistiming, since the diaries, which were published in Russian late last year, are extensive, detailed, informative and highly entertaining, and will certainly amplify – and at times correct – the picture which emerges from Prokofiev’s own rather unsatisfactory autobiographical writings (in their confusingly various published forms), the litter of correspondence and reminiscences, published and otherwise, and the rich documentation in the Prokofiev archive at Goldsmiths College in London.

In spite of this, Nice provides an engaging narrative, a shade detached, more anecdotal and overcrowded than Robinson’s single volume (it enlarges, for instance, on Prokofiev’s mastery of chess and his friendship with Capablanca, which Robinson barely touches on), and with what some will see as the attraction, others as the repulsion, of extensive musical examples, backed up by fairly detailed textual descriptions, although these are more in the nature of verbal snapshots than anything that could be called analysis. What emerges from all this is the story of an intensely active, sometimes embattled existence, illuminated by the brilliance of Prokofiev’s natural talent – the greatest, perhaps, that Russia has produced – but in almost equal measure clouded by the insecurity and moodiness, the fractiousness and ungenerosity, which sometimes afflicted even the best of the Russian diaspora. The diaries leave much more to be said on this subject, and perhaps Nice will find a way to incorporate it in his second volume. Meanwhile, his first is a looming tragedy without, as yet, a corpse. The candidates are assembled: the composer stepping into the snakepit with a happy smile; his wife and two young sons loyally following him to a doom that was his but not their birthright; past and future collaborators, like Meyerhold and Eisenstein; above all, his music, lurching, soon, between heroism and ignominy. It is not a pretty tale, nor one so gripping intellectually as that of Stalin’s more spectacular victim, Shostakovich. But it is a window giving onto the modern interplay of music and politics.

[*] 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).