Against Bare Bottoms

Simon Morrison

In April 1955, two years after Prokofiev’s death from a stroke, his widow and his two sons arranged for two chests of documents to be shipped to Moscow from New York. Prokofiev had left them in a safe during his final overseas tour in 1938, presumably because he worried that his personal papers might fall into the hands of Soviet agents. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, charged with acquiring (or confiscating) the foreign archives of Soviet citizens, forced Prokofiev’s family to have the documents returned to the Soviet Union. The chests arrived in Moscow in July 1956. Their contents were sealed in the vaults of the Central State Archive of Literature and Art, but weren’t catalogued: only the composer’s heirs were to have access to them. Later that year, Prokofiev’s first wife was released from a Soviet prison camp, where she had spent eight years falsely charged with treason. Mira, his second wife, died in 1968, his younger son, Oleg, defected to the West in 1972 and his older son, Svyatoslav, accepted French citizenship in 2000, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still the archive remained sealed, nikomu ne vydavat’ – not to be seen by anyone without the written approval of the Prokofiev estate.

The only papers to have been released are Prokofiev’s diaries for the years 1907 to 1933. Svyatoslav published them in Russian in 2002, reconstructing them from his father’s idiosyncratic shorthand, which omitted vowels and redundant consonants. Volumes I, 1907-14, and II, 1915-23, were translated by Anthony Phillips and published in the UK in 2006 and 2008 respectively. The third and final volume, also translated by Phillips, came out at the end of last year. The set – 2735 pages – is produced as stylishly as the Russian edition but with better annotations and a proper index. Phillips’s colossal labour is an indispensable contribution to the history of musical modernism. Prokofiev was intolerant, impetuous and obnoxiously self-centred, but he had an unmatched musical ear, an eye for detail and a keen wit. His lexicon of invective and arcane slang is not easy to translate into English, but Phillips succeeds magnificently. Put-downs range from ‘haemorrhoidal’ to ‘unhorsed’ (meaning ‘at a loss’); Russia is derided as ‘Bolshevizia’; personal belongings are ‘impedimenta’. Prokofiev’s descriptions of his own works pale in comparison to what he says of those by his rivals; his account of the modernist music scene adds to the historical record. He had a close personal relationship with Stravinsky during his pre-Soviet years in Paris, as well as with Poulenc and the composers’ collective known as Les Six. He writes about the experience of touring to places as far-flung as Buffalo and Odessa with the flair of an experienced travel writer: he even notes the bathroom fixtures in his hotel rooms.

The diaries render moot the central question of Prokofiev studies: why did he return to Russia in 1936, when censorship and ideological mind control were at their worst? He went back, we learn, because he never really left. In 1919, Lenin’s cultural commissar gave him permission to make a name for himself in the West, on the understanding that he would act as an ambassador for Soviet culture. But he was homesick even before clearing customs at Angel Island, and fretted that he would not be forgiven for seeking his fortune elsewhere – not that he found fortune in America. Penniless and undernourished, he fell victim on his US tour to bizarre illnesses (he refers to a ‘plague of abscesses’ in his throat). The worry persisted through his years in Paris, put a strain on his marriage and alienated him from his colleagues. He didn’t fit in among the Russian expats, and preferred the quiet area around the Invalides to more fashionable Montmartre and Montparnasse, and games of chess to champagne receptions. Interruptions to his routine were forbidden, except when it came to the Soviet officials who courted him and eventually won him over.

The diaries are not complete, nor are they error-free. We learn nothing of the professional service Prokofiev provided to VOKS, the All-Union Society for Cultural Exchanges Abroad. Ostensibly devoted to cultural diplomacy, the organisation actually engaged in low-level espionage, recruiting susceptible American, English and French artists to the communist cause. Svyatoslav made a point of censoring his father’s amorous adventures. The details of his first dates with Lina, who became his first wife, including his attempt to pin her down on the table of his West 57th Street apartment, have been decorously excised. Errors in Svyatoslav’s transcription include rendering the shorthand ‘Afv’ as the surname of the composer and music critic Boris Asafyev, when in fact it refers to the writer Aleksandr Afinogenov. Phillips fixes the mistake in his translation. Then there are the things that Prokofiev himself chose to suppress, including details about his first marriage and his mother’s death in 1924. Sentiment is restrained. His egotistical account of his father’s death on 27 March 1910, suggests that most (if not all) of his emotion went into his music: ‘I feel that at the present time I have not yet arrived at a true appreciation of my father’s undoubtedly noble personality. He served me, his only son, unstintingly, and it was thanks to his tireless work that I was provided for so long with all my material necessities.’ Svyatoslav might have written the same epitaph for his father.

‘Ptashka’, Prokofiev’s nickname for Lina, whom he married in 1923 after she became pregnant, is generally confined to the margins of the diaries: she seems much less important to him than his career, sometimes less important than his Russian friends in Paris. The letters between husband and wife are sealed in the same Moscow archive as the original, shorthand version of the diaries. The Prokofiev estate gave me permission to see them. Lina emerges as capricious, impulsive and extravagantly self-indulgent. She was more devoted to her sons than Prokofiev was, but that doesn’t say much, since most of the boys’ memories of their father were of saying goodbye to him at railway stations. Prokofiev encouraged Lina to pursue a career as a soprano, but she had neither the talent nor the nerve and reached her zenith as Gilda in a short-lived production of Rigoletto at the Teatro Carcano in Milan in 1923. Her modest successes on the operatic stage were no match for her astonishing performances in real life: long-suffering would-be bride, glamorous ingénue on the diplomatic circuit and finally tragic heroine of the Stalinist police state. She was thrust into the last of these roles in the 1940s, after Prokofiev had abandoned her for Mira, who was 24 years younger than him.

When Prokofiev writes about his early courtship with Lina, then living with her polyglot, itinerant musician parents in Manhattan, he makes it clear that he had other romantic interests. But Lina demonstrated a commitment to and understanding of Prokofiev’s art that the ‘alarmingly décolletée cocottes’ he squired did not. ‘I sincerely value and love your music,’ she wrote to him in a combination of Russian and English in 1921, ‘but I love S.P. the man and not S.P. the composer.’ He pushed her away; she pushed back. After years of an on-again off-again, transcontinental affair that compromised her own career choices, she shot back: ‘If I were the vain and empty creature you have involuntarily accused me of being, by calling my love for you “a desire to pose before the world”, I am afraid my desire would have been crushed long ago by the last two to three years’ circumstances.’ Such rhetoric is nowhere to be found in the diaries. He celebrates the hypnotic effect he had on Lina, but predictably fails to mention her efforts to save him from disastrous professional decisions – mostly by reminding him of their shared faith.

Prokofiev devotes page after page to his investment in Christian Science and the teachings of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy. In his youth he’d been disdainful of Christianity but in France he and Lina discovered a religion that offered the appealing image of a clockwork universe and stressed the power of mind over matter. He suffered from chronic headaches and, for all the pride he took in self-control, a bad temper. Self-healing, as preached by Eddy, seemed to offer the only cure for the exhausting mental strain he felt as he feverishly fashioned scores from sketchbooks in hotel rooms between recitals: he composed on transatlantic steamers, on trains, and on walks along the Seine. But the tenets of Christian Science that most attracted him were moral rather than physical, and resonated with the Kant and Schopenhauer he had absorbed in his youth. Under the spell of the Real Science, he formed an idea that led him to rethink his method of composition: he and his art were reflections of the divine. His music might be attached to images or words, or relate to real-world events, yet it retained an abstract spiritual content. The Science lifted him and his music above it all.

He believed from the start that his talent was God-given, and this belief carried him through his toughest moments on the road, especially his New York debut in 1918. Thanks to a loan from a benefactor, he arranged a recital in the Aeolian Hall on 20 November, to play a few études and his Second Piano Sonata. The stiff action of the piano bothered him and he became anxious; his hands took a wrong turn and landed in the wrong key. He recovered by rewriting a transition in his head and pounded on the Steinway until it produced the fortissimos he needed. He savaged his fingers, losing feeling in them halfway through the piece, but he triumphed. Now he was able to persuade himself that he was ‘a musician of genius and the public no more than a “mass-product from nature’s factory”’. ‘I would only be making myself ridiculous in my own eyes if I yielded to anxiety before them.’

He was sure that he would do better than his fellow expat Rachmaninov in capturing the affections of Western audiences, but Stravinsky was another matter. He was nine years younger than Stravinsky, and thus, as he would always say, nine years more modern. But he could never trump him, as he realised in 1921, after attending a performance of Le Sacre du printemps, the lodestar of musical modernism: ‘It was the first time I had seen Le Sacre on the stage, and it made a colossal impression on me. I was truly awestruck, and embraced Stravinsky with unaffected emotion.’ Prokofiev knew that he was a better melodist than Stravinsky, but this knowledge was of little use in the age of Dada, when his rival would dive into the rubbish bin for discarded tunes. Prokofiev did not steal from older composers, and was angered by the success of works like Poulenc’s Les Biches. The ballet, which represents fashionable French resort misbehaviour, mixes quotations from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Satie and others, in accord with a Surrealist aesthetic that Prokofiev could never quite countenance. ‘There is no development,’ he complained about Les Biches in his diary, and it ‘consists of four-bar phrases tacked onto other four-bar phrases to which they bear no relationship’. This may be true but it misses the point. Prokofiev comes across as a traditionalist in an age of sordid licentiousness. Even when he indulged the sordid, as in his ballet Chout, he was outmanoeuvred. It was dropped from the repertoire of the Ballets Russes in favour of a burlesque featuring a fox, a rooster, a cat and a ram: Stravinsky’s Renard.

Other composers and works impressed him: Honegger’s Pacific 231, Ravel’s The Child and the Enchanted Objects, John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers. He felt he could outmodernise them, but misfired with his opera The Fiery Angel, which concerns demonic possession in Renaissance Cologne. Between the first and second drafts, it became the noisiest opera ever written – Prokofiev made such a racket pounding its chromatic clusters into shape at the piano that his family received an eviction notice. He spent four years on it, but never saw his devils on stage. A partial concert performance in Paris resulted in the usual unflattering comparisons to Stravinsky. The piece had already caused a crisis of faith. ‘Given that the subject matter of Fiery Angel is in direct opposition to Christian Science, why am I still working on it?’ Prokofiev asked in his diary. ‘The solution can only be that Fiery Angel must be consigned to the flames.’ He found consolation in recalling that Gogol had tossed the second part of his novel Dead Souls into the stove – failure was a sign of genius.

The setback was mitigated by his success as a composer for dance. The diaries provide plenty of detail about ballets composed for Diaghilev and such little known wonders as Trapeze (1924) and On the Dnieper (1930). These pieces find Prokofiev moving out of Stravinsky’s orbit into an aesthetic he called ‘new simplicity’, influenced by Christian Science. He could now persuade Soviet cultural officials that he could compose in an accessible (which is to say, Soviet-sanctioned) idiom. Prokofiev’s turn towards a more ingratiating musical style caused some artists, among them Balanchine, to turn their backs on him. Prokofiev and Balanchine collaborated on the ballet The Prodigal Son of 1929, but as one of the most entertaining passages in the diary makes clear, Prokofiev hated it. He told Balanchine that ‘it would be desirable to moderate the lasciviousness of the Siren’s dance: a loose woman in biblical times would not have behaved in the same way as a modern prostitute, the representation must be refracted through the prism of the intervening centuries.’

Evidently Prokofiev wanted his score to provide this prism, hence the clichéd musical exotica and occasional use of church modes. His anger increased when he discovered that Balanchine also planned to expose the bottoms of the Prodigal Son’s sisters. Diaghilev listened impatiently as Prokofiev vented, then replied: ‘I keep hearing about this … and I must tell you that I very much like this bare bottom. The choreographer does not presume to interfere with your music, and you should not interfere with his dances.’ Prokofiev fumed about the choreography ‘shitting’ on his music; Stravinsky coolly sympathised, telling Prokofiev that ‘everyone’ in the Ballets Russes ‘is tiring of these indecencies and they are quite inappropriate here, but, as a general observation, I would not have gone near a Gospel subject for this theatre.’ It was porn, Prokofiev insisted, and bad porn at that, the dance misaligned with the music: ‘What is bad is not just that they show their bottoms,’ he complained to his wife, ‘but that they do so at the wrong times.’

Parts of the year 1932 are missing from the diaries, for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps the relevant volumes were lost, or acquired privately at auction, as has happened before with Prokofiev’s papers. It was not a particularly significant year in the negotiations to bring him back to the Soviet Union for good, nor was his travel schedule so frantic that he could not keep up his chronicle. But it did contain one important event in the plotline of his Soviet career. That summer, Prokofiev stayed with his family at the summer residence of Jacques Sadoul, Izvestiya’s French correspondent and a committed communist. After exploring Sadoul’s library of agitprop, Prokofiev conceived his Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of October as a paean to Soviet power and a way to improve his standing with Stalin. He completed it on schedule in 1937, a year after his relocation to the Soviet Union, but it was condemned as incomprehensible by the head of Stalin’s Committee on Arts Affairs. That setback, which followed hard on the rejection of his ballet Romeo and Juliet in its original version (which featured a happy ending), broke Prokofiev’s spirit. He was never quite the same composer again.

The final date recorded in the diaries is 6 June 1933. Prokofiev returned from work in Leningrad, where he was scoring the film Lieutenant Kizhe: ‘Poland; then Hitler’s Berlin, Ordnung and cleanliness. I refused to give money to a Hitler youth soliciting donations. Nord Express, and on the 8th we arrived home in Paris. The children were flourishing. An enormous mountain of letters.’ Phillips concludes his translation with an extract from an interview Prokofiev gave to the music critic Serge Moreux in Paris, in which he affirms the rightness of his decision to return to Russia. He saw himself as escaping the threat of Nazi Germany in the West, but obviously did not yet recognise the menace in the East.

In his Soviet years, Prokofiev held on to the habits of a diarist, without actually keeping a diary. He kept lists of addresses and phone numbers, and meticulous accounts of his income and expenses. He began work on an autobiography, mindful of the censors, but got no further than his childhood and a brief sketch of his life before 1936. Then in 1952, six months before his death on the same day as Stalin, Prokofiev suddenly returned to writing. Diary-keeping was risky in the Soviet Union, but his health was so poor that he no longer cared about offending the state. Over 21 pages, Prokofiev records the praise he received for his enfeebled seventh symphony and ‘Symphony-Concerto’ for cello and orchestra, and is sarcastic about his bureaucratic tormentors. In the last entry, dated 1 March 1953, four days before his death, he notes that he still has much more music to compose.