PROKOFIEV – THE RETURN TO RUSSIA. 1932 – 1941. AND THE REASONS?
It is inevitable that every commentator has referred to Prokofiev’s eventual return in 1936 as that of the Prodigal Son, except me that is. But what were his reasons? Truth to say, we none of us can know. We can all only conjecture. In the West there was shock. The American musical press saw it with disgust as the covert commie coming out. His friends in France, Francis Poulenc for one, were more than surprised in that Sergei had said nothing. After all bridge partners do not usually cancel a rubber without saying. In the Soviet Union he was welcomed home by a worshipping public, he himself hailed as a hero and his return a victory for Socialism. It was none of these things.
Nor does it appear that his decision was made suddenly. To begin with he had not left the Soviet Union in 1918 other than to seek his fortune temporarily in America but at the outset he intended to return. What was intended as a short stay became extended but he never settled in the USA. He might well have thought about returning home after his first visit but he probably preferred to return with something to show for it. He might have thought that he would be refused a further exit visa to go to Chicago for the planned opening of The Love of Three Oranges. He clearly felt more at ease in France than in the USA. There he was able to obtain commissions from Diaghilev who was persona non grata in the Soviet Union. He effectively was turning into an ex-pat who might return one day, but not yet. By 1923 he had discovered that his works were being played back home and in fact he received an invitation to conduct the Leningrad Philharmonic. He turned that down. This was at a time when he had just got married, his mother had been able to join him in the West and his future remained rooted in staying in the West. In 1927 came his first return tour and pressure to return. The 1929 tour produced problems with the Composers Union considering him too modernistic and too formalistic. If Prokofiev was tempted he still had to balance that against commissions from Diaghilev and from Koussevitsky. He also had a new family unit in Paris to consider. It was a balance he had to weigh up which at that time came down on staying.y 1932, Diaghilev having died, one important source for new commissions had dried up. One might well speculate whether Prokofiev was creatively tired with the direction of his music in Europe and America. He had been a proclaimed modernist through his student years, had staked his reputation in Europe as being as revolutionary, if not more so, than Stravinsky and it had become virtually impossible for him to write other music which reflected different facets of his make up. Stylistically he did not develop into a middle period as had, say William Walton, or do what Stravinsky would do, shed his skin and emerge with a new musical persona. Compositionally between 1928 and 1931 he was in a groove and appearing to lack the old inspiration. Now commissions came instead from the Soviet Union which allowed him to showcase the more lyrical and epic sides of his musical character.
However the most compelling reason for his return was that he was a homesick Russian wanting to go home and be with his friends. There may, however, be one other explanation. It comes from Shostakovitch’s memoires, Testimony, edited by Solomon Volkov. Shostakovitch did not take particularly to Prokofiev whom he found self-centred. Still he made one telling comment on this particular topic. It was that Prokofiev was an inveterate gambler who had mounting gambling debts around the world and that the reason for his return to Russia was that this was the only way he could escape his creditors. Whether that be true, I cannot say, but it is a cogent argument. One thing is certain. His return did not stem from political ideology. It made no difference to Sergei Prokofiev whether his political master was Peter the Great or Uncle Joe Stalin.
Prokofiev’s return to the Soviet Union took several years — from 1932 to 1936 he still considered Paris his home, but he frequently travelled to Moscow where he had a flat. More importantly, he began to receive commissions for new works from the Soviet Union. Prokofiev did not become a permanent Moscow resident until 1936.
One can also wonder as to how any free thinking individual, as Prokofiev undoubtedly was, could possibly have submitted himself to the restraints of the Soviet system. However, such a question is posed with hindsight and not with the eyes and ears of what one knew between 1932 and 1936. The Lenin revolution was about class and economics and not about the arts. Lenin appeared to have little or no aesthetic understanding but felt that in a classless society there would be no proletariat, no bourgeois for whose better understanding a work of art would be prepared and that therefore the artist should be free to find an appropriate level to which the citizen would aspire. The new soviet state was to be a revolutionary modern state and in the 1920’s it was encouraged to reflect that with revolutionary art. The modernist idiom of Prokofiev in France and America would probably have been in keeping at the time. The restraints only came about after Stalin was in complete control and the concept of Socialist Realism first promulgated about 1932. This was more appropriate to books and paintings than to music where realism, let alone socialism, was harder to discern. It was only with the decree following Stalin’s visit to see Lady Macbeth of the Mstensk District by Shostakovitch that in 1936 the repression started. Shostakovitch recognized it immediately with a Soviet Artist’s reply to Justifiable Criticism. Prokofiev was the bright eyed boy, to whom all promises were made, who thought it would not affect him. At that time the political trials and the artistic repression were not known by the idealists in the West. Russia was viewed as a Utopia for classless freedom by Cambridge professors and English poets, not that they went there as did the great American black singer, Paul Robeson. He did not find Nirvana. As for Prokofiev and others like him, they would end up abused…. as well as disabused.
The first commission from the Soviet Union in 1932 was to write the music for the film, Lieutenant Kijé and which Prokofiev soon reworked into the well known suite. The story is based on a verbal slip of the tongue which, to be understood, depends on a correct translation from the Russian. I have read two explanations. The background to the error takes place during an award ceremony before the Tsar. The first explanation is that by adding “ki” to the word for lieutenant and then the suffix “jé”, the citation became “the lieutenant, however” which the Tsar, who can never be wrong or corrected, understood to be a “Lieutenant However”. Thus was born a man who did not exist, who fell in love, got married and had to be killed off. The other explanation is that kijé means a blot; that there was a kijé on the paper and the spokesman referred to Lieutenant Blot. Each version depends upon which unreliable source one accepts. Of the two versions of the orchestral suite, the better known has a saxophone solo; the other a solo baritone singing. It is worth hearing the latter. The music for Lieutenant Kijé had all the popular appeal that had hitherto been missing in much of Prokofiev’s output. I first heard it in a themed concert entitled “Once upon A Time” in the early 50’s conducted by Solti. A word of caution “however”. Don’t go to Debenhams, especially at this time of year and especially not in the Glades at Bromley, just don’t think about it. There you will be “entertained” to so called Christmas carols. Sandwiched between a bilious “Have yourself a very merry Christmas” and a retching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, you will be subjected to an anaemic arrangement of the Troika from Lieutenant Kijé, conceived originally as a post nuptial ride following a drunken wedding, now renamed “Christmas Sleighride”,. I have remonstrated in vain with the staff and suggested they join SOP but they seemed a little bewildered by my complaint!
This period between Paris and Moscow is marked by a number of other new works, the most important of which were the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto. The concerto was not a commission from the USSR but written for the French violinist Robert Soetans who gave the first performance in Madrid in December 1935. It was an immediate success and became even more popular when championed by Jascha Heifetz. The Second Violin Concerto is typical of the other major works of this period and is said to mark a transition from his ‘toccata’ and ‘grotesque’ style into his ‘lyrical’ and classical’ style.
It was the Kirov Theatre which in 1934 commissioned a new ballet from Prokofiev who suggested Romeo and Juliet as the subject. The Kirov were unhappy because although the living can dance, the dying cannot. Prokofiev took it instead to the Bolshoi at Moscow who pronounced it as undanceable and the ballet itself was not performed until December 1938, not in Russia at all. (One internet source refers to it as the Brno Opera House in Prague! I wonder if the geographic knowledge of the anonymous American author indicates that he perhaps comes from Paris – Texas). In its original version Prokofiev wrote a happy ending where the lovers do not die and are able to keep on dancing. Lost parts of the original score were found in 2008. According to a columnist in the Independent, who is an absolute mine of information, mostly unreliable, Stalin himself would not allow Shakespeare to be altered and insisted that the story was put back. Prokofiev was not one to waste music and composed two orchestral suites and a piano transcription (Opus 75) of the ballet score in 1936 and 1937 with enough material over to compose a third suite in 1946. These transcriptions were warmly accepted by the public.
The twentieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution took place in 1937. By this time Prokofiev, resembling somewhat the Master of the Queen’s Musick, was happy to do his bit,. He wrote a Cantata, a forerunner for Alexander Nevsky. It is for a large orchestra, including three accordions, two choirs, is exceedingly noisy and lasts 45 minutes. It depicts the events leading up to the revolution which takes place in the sixth movement. This contains (inter alia) machine gun firing, the wail of fire engines, the sound of sirens, dancing to accordions, marching feet and the words of Lenin leading the proletariat. Later there is a solemn oath by Stalin at Lenin’s tomb to uphold the revolution. Prokofiev had grasped the concept of toeing the party line and Socialist Realism in music. Here was a work that matched all the requirements….but for one thing. Josef Stalin, the great Leader and Musicologist, did not like it and the work was withdrawn, never to be played again in Prokofiev’s lifetime.
Lieutenant Kijé had marked the beginning of a period of intense interest by Prokofiev in film music. He made a special trip to Hollywood as a musical ambassador in 1938 to study the techniques there, following which he scored the music for Eisenstein’s epic film, Alexander Nevsky in 1939, followed by several films in the war culminating with Ivan the Terrible (1942-5).
The soundtrack of the film of Alexander Nevsky sounds a bit worn these days but we are fortunate that Prokofiev immediately transcribed the material as a cantata which is one of the most exciting choral events in the calendar. The opening chorus of “In Our Native Russian Land” demonstrates that Prokofiev was every bit a nationalist as Mussorgsky or Borodin. The film itself has a number of co-incidental similarities with another film score of the time, Henry V by Walton in 1944. Both were written either during or under the clouds of impending war. Both contain historical subjects and tingle with patriotism. Both have battle scenes, that in Nevsky, the battle on ice, and Henry V, once more to the breach, at Agincourt. I wonder if anyone has thought of having them as bedfellows in the same concert… with Matthew Taylor conducting!
Apart from films Prokofiev was writing incidental music for the stage as well and as prolific in this field as Sibelius. His scores included several plays including Egyptian Nights (1934), Boris Godunov (1936), Eugene Onegin (1936), and Hamlet (1937). These are rarely to be heard but Egyptian Nights will be played in the LPO Festival.
At much the same time, soon after his full return in 1936 Prokofiev was asked by the Central Children’s Theatre to write a new musical symphony just for children. The idea was to cultivate ‘musical tastes in children from the first years of school.’ Prokofiev set about the project of writing a young person’s guide to the orchestra and completed Peter and the Wolf in four days. Its public debut was, in the composer’s words, inauspicious and the attendance was rather poor. I have no idea what royalties were paid in the Soviet system but by rights, if one compares with Howard Blake who wrote the music for “the Snowman”, Prokofiev should have been a multi-millionaire as a result. Mind you, Peter and The Wolf should now be kept from children as not being politically correct. It contains hunting to begin with and doubtless the Animal Rights movement would canvass for the protection of wolves!
Following his return it could be said that Prokofiev could do little wrong. He would have been aware of changes in the official outlook but they did not appear to affect him as they had Shostakovitch whose opera, the Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, brought down the full wrath of Stalin in January 1936. The change in the process of composing music was stark. In the West, a composer’s creativity was tempered only by economic realities, the ability to obtain commissions and the ability to be performed. In the Soviet Union, the environment became completely different. From the beginning, the Soviet Union was centrally controlled by party leaders in Moscow who dictated everything that was to be created, consumed or conceived. Thus artistic freedom was non-existent. Creativity was stifled by the whims of appointed party bureaucrats. In 1932 Stalin introduced his cultural policy of ‘Socialist Realism’ extending it a little later with guidelines for composers.
The important cultural ‘isms’ in the West, cubism, surrealism, atonalism were all pre-first world war concepts and therefore to be regarded as decadent. The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality, towards all that is heroic, bright and beautiful. This distinguishes the spiritual world of Soviet man and must be embodied in musical images full of beauty and strength. Socialist Realism demands an implacable struggle against folk-negating modernistic directions that are typical of the decay of contemporary bourgeois art and culture.
Prokofiev began to feel the cold wind with the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution in 1936-37, which was rejected as too modernist. Not put off by this he began a new opera based on the exploits of Semyon Kotko, a young Soviet hero during the occupation of Ukraine by the Germans after the revolution. As with Alexander Nevsky the Germans were the villains of the plot which was to have unforeseen consequences, not only for Prokofiev’s reputation but even worse for the director, Vsevolod Meyerhold.
Prior to 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were politically poles apart. The signing of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact on 31 August 1939 took the West by surprise, paving the way for the joint Hitler/Stalin invasion of Poland the next day. Its effect on Prokofiev was that Germany was suddenly an ally of the Soviet Union. The imminent staging of Semyon Kotko with its portrayal of a brutal German occupation was no longer politically acceptable. Meyerhold, who had been a long time friend of Prokofiev going back to “The Gambler” and who was half way through producing Semyon Kotko, was arrested, disappearing in 1984 fashion, and executed in 1940. Prokofiev sought out Eisenstein to ask him to take over the production but he kept his head down. In fact Eisentstein was actually producing Die Valkyrie at Moscow for the benefit of the new found friends. Alexander Nevsky already had gone out on release in 1939 and this was also withdrawn from the screens. Prokofiev then proposed replacing the role of the Germans in the opera with the nationality of the villains being unspecified but this was not acceptable to the authorities. Semyon Kotko was removed from the official repertoire and not rehabilitated until 1970.
A further consequence for Prokofiev of the Soviet Union’s rapprochement with Germany was severed ties with France, the United States, and the rest of the West. There was no longer any need for Prokofiev to travel abroad as an ambassador of music and it was decreed he could no longer tour outside the Soviet Union. A further knock on effect was the Prokofiev family life. Foreigners were mistrusted. Lina was Spanish by birth, in itself a dangerous fact in Stalin’s paranoid state. The boys had been sent to an English speaking school which was closed down. Strains were taking place in the marital relationship and Prokofiev began playing away. It was not with Moscow Dynamo.
Sergei had first met Eleonora Damskaya in the spring of 1917 and they had had a brief but fiery affair before his departure for America. She became a harpist with the orchestra at the Maryinsky. In 1934, they were to meet again at a concert in Leningrad. Prokofiev, we know, was already married and the father of two sons; Eleonora had long been married also. Things happened as they do. It was probably only for old time’s sake but in March 1935 Eleonora gave birth to a boy she called Alexander. She made no secret who was the boy’s father. Apparently the little Alexander looked like a carbon copy of his famous father (not unlikely as Prokofiev and presumably the baby were both bald). Prokofiev knew about Alexander and always tried to help him and his mother.
In 1939 he met the poet Mira Mendelssohn when she was 24 and he 48. Things happened as they do. Prokofiev was seriously in love and moved in with Mira. Lina was none too pleased. In 1940 Prokofiev began writing his last complete opera, The Duenna (Betrothal in a Monastery). Mira collaborated on the Duenna and wrote many of the verses. It is based on a ballad opera of Sheridan, written following The Rivals with music by Thomas Linley. It was a pastiche opera more in the tradition of John Gay’s Beggars Opera. The story is one of elopement, set in Seville. It involves drunken monks but no barber. The Prokofiev opera had its staging delayed by the outbreak of war. When it finally premiered after the war in 1946, it was received with acclaim all over the Soviet Union.
Mira Mendelssohn also later helped write the lyrics for the next opera, “War and Peace”, which was to be the largest project that Prokofiev was to undertake. Following the German attack on the USSR on 22nd June 1941, important composers, writers and artists were sent for safety to Malchick in the Caucasus. Having already arranged that Mira would accompany him, Prokofiev also asked Lina to join him. However, when told that that woman would also be going, Lina put her foot down and refused to go and decided to stick it out with the children in Moscow for the duration. The marriage was effectively over but Lina was not prepared to agree to a divorce. Ultimately, Sergey and Mira were to marry in March 1948 but that and the consequences form part of another tragic story to tell and to be dealt with in the Post War Years.