Prokofiev (4)



The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 came as a complete surprise to most Russians including Prokofiev who related that, having first learned about it from the caretakers wife, he sought confirmation from Eisentstein. The invasion did at least resurrect Alexander Nevsky particularly in showing the Teuton hordes. The news of the invasion is said also to have come as a surprise to Stalin who became frozen by inaction. It was on Stalin’s orders that the cultural élite were ordered out of Moscow, in Prokofiev’s case to Nalchik in the Caucasus where he was established for three months in a kind of ex-pats’ artists’ colony.


At the time he had been at work on writing his ballet “Cinderella” but he turned now to something else he had been thinking on for some time, “War and Peace”. Lina has stated he had been speaking of it as early as 1935. Some years later Mira would read to him from Tolstoy’s novel and he planned an opera based on the personal circumstances of its leading characters against the background of Napoleon’s retreat. In April 1941 he had drafted an outline libretto. With the outbreak of war, his focus switched from the individual destinies to the creation of a national epic. The link to Hitler and the Nazi invaders with that of Napoleon at the head of the French army was obvious. The villains were not the problem. The more difficult association might have been between the Tsar Alexander 1 and Josef Stalin, a connection that the latter might well have deprecated. This work, as monumental as the novel which inspired it, would become the most challenging task to face Prokofiev. It took up all his energy in writing it and in his obtaining a production over the course of nearly ten years.


These war years were to be amongst the most prolific in Prokofiev’s output. Yet the compositions which emerged were written against the background of his deteriorating health. He first suffered a heart attack in the Spring of 1941. Later in January of 1945, Prokofiev fell and suffered severe concussion. He nearly died in the following days, his recovery hampered by his earlier heart attack and general fatigue from overwork. He would suffer recurring headaches and periods of dangerously high blood pressure until his death eight years later. Prokofiev never fully recovered from this accident, although the greatness of works which were to follow gave no indication of it.


The period spent in Nalchik was short but productive and Prokofiev was happily ensconced with friends, particularly Miaskovsky who was preparing his twenty third symphony, and other musical acquaintances. He described it there as a small town nestling in the foothills of the Caucasus with a delightful park (subsequently destroyed by the Germans) and a mountain range in the background. It was the chairman of the Arts Committee who told Prokofiev of the collection and recordings, made by Tanyev, of Kabardinian folk music, which he suggested was abundant in material that was untapped. Prokofiev contemplated using it as the basis of a second quartet but began to wonder whether the primitive nature of the original could adapt itself to his compositional style and at the same time be understood. The chairman however, reassured him that he should write as he felt. “If we don’t understand your quartet now, we will later on”. His first quartet had been written under the classical inspiration of Beethoven. Now he produced a string quartet (already illustrated by Matthew) based on Russo-Oriental folk melodies, but his approach had nothing in common with that of Rimsky Korsakov or Borodin nor of Ippolitov-Ivanov with his exotic Caucasian Sketches, in particular the Procession of the Sadar which sounds as if it was written to bring the tourists out to watch. What to my mind Prokofiev was able to achieve was a successful assimilation of folk-tune and sonata form. It was Constant Lambert in his “Music Ho!” , a study of music in decline, written in 1934, my constant reading companion over sixty years, who wrote of the conflict between nationalism and form . Incidentally, if I had my way, I would have every hotel replace its Gideon bibles with Music Ho! National expression was a prevalent musical movement in many countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries, perhaps no more so clear cut as in Russia. The basis of traditional Austro-German sonata form is the exposition of two main themes and their subsidiary ideas and to develop them by dissecting them, reversing them and cross pollinating them before recapitulating them . The principal means of expression of nationalism was usually folk dance or song, music which, at its most basic is not susceptible to symphonic or quartet development without at the same time losing its national character. As Lambert wrote, “To put it vulgarly, the whole trouble with a folk song is that once you have played it through there is nothing much you can do except play it again and play it rather louder”. This is best exemplified by the first movement of Borodin’s second symphony. The equivalent movement in his first symphony was less national but much better structurally developed.


The themes of the first movement of the Prokofiev quartet evidence their Caucasian roots and atmosphere but, though seemingly repetitive, Prokofiev is able to ring the changes in developing them in sonata form without any sense of loss of their initial national character. By the time the quartet was finished Prokofiev had moved on from the Northern Caucasus to Tbilisi in Georgia. He later learned that when the Germans had taken Nalchik, the Arts chairman had joined the partisans and had been killed in attacking enemy lines. Life in Tbilisi was hard and the winter exceedingly cold. There he continued to work constantly, despite his deteriorating health and the advancing Germans. He finished his original score for “War and Peace”, writing to Eisentstein that he would shortly be able to submit himself to his bondage”. This was a reference to the musical score he had undertaken to write for the film “Ivan The Terrible” which was now being planned as a trilogy. Soviet Film production had been moved to Alma Ata close to the Chinese border to where Prokofiev went on leaving Tbilisi and where he remained until 1943 when it became safer to return to Moscow.


Prokofiev had also set to work on what are known as his Wartime Sonatas. His sixth was actually completed before the war. He completed his seventh piano sonata which was to achieve international success but did nothing to improve the reputation of its predecessor, the first performance of which had been given by Prokofiev himself in a broadcast back in 1940, the page turner being Sviatoslav Richter. The first movement in particular was considered by one critic as exceedingly brutal. What it does tell us is that with the Great Patriotic War the party had taken its foot off the cultural brake. Certainly Prokofiev seemed to be writing what he wanted fairly freely with a mixture of his “old fashioned” modernism mixed, as and when he felt like it, with his seemingly newly acquired lyricism. What it amounts to is that Prokofiev was a multi-faceted composer who could bring to bear his varied abilities and mix and match as he saw fit.


The seventh sonata was given by Richter who had learned it by heart in four days. He has related how, during the first rehearsal, there was a problem with the piano pedal. Both he and Sergei crawled under the piano to sort it out and, in doing so, cracked their heads “so hard that we saw stars”. Prokofiev later recalled , “But we did fix the pedal after all, didn’t we!” The motoric third movement is another in Prokofiev’s pre-Soviet ‘toccata’ style, unrelenting in its rhythm and power. Yet for this sonata he was awarded his first Stalin Prize. When the Eighth Sonata was completed in 1944, Prokofiev was not well enough to play the premiere. This time he selected another brilliant young Soviet pianist, Emil Gilels, in his stead. Gilels gave the first performance on 29 December 1944. Although not as popular as the sixth and seventh, the eighth was described by Richter as “the richest of all of Prokofiev’s sonatas.”

Despite the harsh conditions imposed by war, Prokofiev’s output remained prolific. Apart from the second quartet and his ‘War’ sonatas he continued work on “War and Peace”. Also during this time, Prokofiev wrote incidental music for four films, completed the epic Cinderella ballet, a number of symphonic suites, a flute sonata with a transcription of it for violin and piano (made at the request of David Oistrakh) , two military marches, several folk songs, and the towering Fifth Symphony. By any standards this is an amazing number of works and represents the fruits of his workaholicism. Cinderella, second only to Romeo and Juliet in popularity among Prokofiev’s ballets, followed a circuitous route to its premiere on the Bolshoi stage in 1945. The work was originally commissioned by the Kirov Theatre during the period of the Soviet/German pact . Prokofiev was in fact working on the piano score to the second act of the ballet when the invasion actually began. This in itself immediately placed the project on hold and Prokofiev had to focus his energies elsewhere for two years. When he did resume work on the ballet at the end of 1943, he also completed a set of piano transcriptions (Opus 95 and 97) before starting on the orchestration. The ballet received its premiere in November1945 in Moscow with Galina Ulanova in the title role. She had earlier danced the lead in Romeo and Juliet as well. As the greatest prima ballerina of her day she was used to obtaining her way. She leaned heavily on Prokofiev to get him to switch the best tunes, which he had written for the fairy godmother, to Cinderella. Ulanova had met her match. No way was Prokofiev prepared to play ball on this, Ulanova or no Ulanova.


Of all the works in the wartime period his most successful was undoubtedly his Fifth Symphony which he began in 1944 immediately after he had completed the orchestral score for Cinderella. It received its first performance in January 1945 in Moscow against the background of the end of the war being in sight and Soviet troops pressing towards victory. It was to be also the last time Prokofiev was to conduct as soon afterwards he fell dangerously ill, nearly dying, following a fall and concussion and from which he never fully recovered. The work was highly praised. It quickly emerged as his most popular symphony and remains to this day one of his greatest orchestral works. He was awarded his second Stalin Prize for it.


Here I dare to enter Matthew’s territory, just a little, if he will forgive me. Every great composer has his own sonar fingerprints, something which tells you this can only be Bach, or Vivaldi or Beethoven. Often they may be identified by their use of their preferred instrument and Prokofiev certainly has his almost to himself. It is his use of the tuba. One hears it in Lieutenant Kijé and in the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet and I noticed this particularly about a year ago at a performance of the fifth symphony. It starts with a quiet flute over quiet violins but then comes our tuba. Now usually the tuba is there to give extra beef to the trumpets and trombones or, as with early Sibelius, to back up the double basses of the string section. With the tuba, the little guy, usually hidden by his instrument and almost certain to end up with a hernia, is generally just an added support. What Prokofiev does is to use the tuba as a soloist to roam freely as anybody else would a solo violin. Few composers do so, Ravel being the notable exception in his orchestration of Bydlo from Mussorgsky’s Pictures from An Exhibition.  

 When you hear the tuba in Prokofiev you know it is Prokofiev. The shattering climax to the first movement of this symphony is followed by a scherzo originally intended for Romeo and Juliet. It has something of an almost American razzmataz about it. The third movement has a sad wistfulness and am I mistaken in thinking that there is something of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata in its rocking accompaniment in the strings? In this symphony, and the second movement in particular, I sense some distant family likeness to Aaron Copland. He, like Prokofiev, had been a modernist in the 1930’s, before finding his popular voice at very much the same time, in works like Rodeo, El Salon Mexico and Billy The Kid. The two share the same sense of homespun composition and of Copland it can be said that in the Fanfare for The Common Man, in all its simplicity, he was able to achieve with ease and without political dogma or diktat what socialist realism in Russia set out so heavy handedly to try to do and couldn’t.


The triumphalism of the fifth symphony sent out the right messages as the war came to an end. They danced the hokey cokey in the streets of Moscow, or its Russian equivalent. As a commemoration, Prokofiev wrote the Ode to the End of the War for a mixed ensemble including 8 harps, 4 pianos, wind, percussion and double basses. But Prokofiev’s thoughts were far bleaker and at variance with the need for optimism set out in the party line. He dwelt more upon the loss and waste that the country had had to endure. Coupled with this was his deteriorating physical condition which could only add to the pessimism he was expressing. His doctors ordered him to restrict his hours of work but Prokofiev needed work like a drug. In any case he could manage without a piano to go on composing wherever he was. He had begun his sixth symphony before the fifth. It is set in three long movements and he completed it in November 1945. It is written for a standard sized orchestra to which are added piano and celeste. Its brief moments of apparent happiness slip away leaving a sense of unease, of troubled times ahead, reminiscent in some ways of Mahler’s sixth symphony. The slow movement has a striking middle section which recalls perhaps the clock scene in Boris Godunov. The last movement contains what could be called a peasants’ clog dance, but not with the joy of Beethoven’s merrymaking peasants. It ends with the rhythm of the peasants becoming a stumping march. Commentators jump to interpret this as being Prokofiev’s comment on the trampling of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. The sixth symphony disappointed after its first performance. It is generally considered now to be his greatest.


Sergei and Mira had returned to Moscow in 1943 where he was happy enough living at a special composers village. He did not feel particularly at ease alongside composers whom he did not regard highly but who, because of their senior official positions in the Composers Union, saw themselves as superior. It was a price he could afford to put up with and ignore. His fortunes began to change for the worse after Stalin saw Ivan The Terrible, released in 1945, and which he did not like. Prokofiev’s other great rival, Stravinsky, wrote in his diary, “Luncheon here in New York. Went to see the most stupid and provincial Russian film, Ivan The Terrible, first part, with very embarrassing music of the poor Prokofiev”.


During the war the brake on artists’ freedom which had appeared to have been somewhat relaxed was re-applied, not just with a gentle application but by a fierce emergency stop with the iron heel of Andrej Zdhanov. It was he who had probably piloted the earlier pogrom against writers and composers in 1934. He was then party boss in Leningrad. By 1948 he was in the politburo, Stalin’s chosen successor, his son marrying Stalin’s daughter and at the ready to implement the every wish of his beloved leader. As previously with Lady Macbeth, the problem started with Stalin going to the opera. One wonders why Stalin did go to the opera. He never seemed to enjoy it and it always ended up with his need for a purge. On this occasion the opera concerned was The Great Friendship by one Vano Muradeli, an otherwise unknown mediocrity. The libretto contained all the ingredients required for a really good socialist realist work of art. The only problem was that he would not have known that the hero and martyr of the story, the old leader of the Georgian Bolsheviks, had actually been executed on Stalin’s order. Immediately his award was withdrawn, as was his opera. Now Zdhanov stepped in, heading a series of terrifying courts martial with all the composers lined up and dressed down about their duties to the party and how to compose their music. Each in turn confessed their failings. Each ignobly was made to level criticisms against the others. This period became known as Zhdanovshchina, “Zdhanov’s Terror”. Prokofiev was particularly singled out and vilified for his sixth symphony. Other leading composers were savaged including Shostakovitch and Katchaturian. Moise Weinberg, who had escaped the Nazis in Poland and whose family had all been wiped out by them, was condemned because his music was said to be too Jewish. Added to his other problems, all Prokofiev could do was bear it without grinning. Gone were the days when he had been Stalin’s blue eyed boy. In November 1948, Zdhanov, who was a heavy drinker, suddenly died but the repression continued until the death of Comrade Joe.


Yet another black cloud added to Prokofiev’s troubles. He and Lina had parted in 1941, she staying in Moscow during the war. Sergei and Mira were happy together but Lina would not agree to a divorce. She had found work during the war dealing with visiting Western delegations. By the end of the war she had been ill with diphtheria and in the post war paranoia she became suspected as a spy. In January 1948 Prokofiev was able to procure an annulment of the marriage which had taken place in Bavaria in 1923. My researches give two different reasons. The first is that the Soviet Union passed a law in 1947 which made marriages to foreign citizens null and void with retrospective effect. Another source states that marriages which had taken place abroad should have been registered in the Soviet Union and that the Prokofievs had failed to do so. My own legal instincts tell me that the second is the more likely. It seems that Sergei may have advanced his own omissions as reason for the annulment. In March he and Mira married and four weeks later Lina was to disappear. Some blame Mira believing she was a government agent, unlikely as she lived with and nursed Sergei till his death. Lina had gone out after receiving a phone call and was bundled into a car. She was sentenced to twenty years in a labour camp in the Gulag and must have been thankful she had taken her fur coat with her. It is not known if Prokofiev did try to help but it I imagine that his reaction was one of self preservation. Such disappearances were not an common occurrence and even the wife of Molotov received similar treatment whilst Stalin’s loyal foreign secretary remained silent. In an interview years later, Sergei’s older son, Sviatoslav said that he believed that Shostakovitch had written a letter on behalf of Lina. He also put his neck out to have Weinberg brought back to Moscow and these acts show him to be a caring and very brave man. Lina was released after eight years, during the Khrushchev years. By then Prokofiev was dead but she was able to get the annulment itself annulled and the validity of her marriage and the legitimacy of her children restored. She tried for many years to leave and was eventually granted permission to do so in 1974, nearly twenty years after she had followed her husband to the Soviet Union. She returned to Paris and recorded the narration of Peter and the Wolf when she was 88 years old.


The last years saw the deaths of close friends, Eisentein and particularly Miaskovsky who, with 27 symphonies under his belt, had lost all heart after the repression. Prokofiev, still subject to virulent attacks and venues closed to him, made some genuine attempts to produce what the state required but he also continued to compose works of stature. Particularly notable are the works for cello written for Rostropovitch, a sweet mellow cello sonata, a bed mate on the record shelves with that of Rachmaninov, and the powerful cello symphony.


His final symphony was the seventh composed in 1951 and 1952. Intended originally as a symphony for young listeners, it achieves a comparative simplicity but there are dark emotions beneath the surface. In some parts it returns to the innocence of the Classical Symphony. The first public performance of the seventh symphony was to be Prokofiev’s last public appearance. Five years later he was posthumously awarded a Lenin Prize for the work, not that he nor Lenin for that matter, would have known about it, a guilt offering perhaps from what had been an ungrateful nation.


Socialist realism as a system could never have produced a genius, only its galloping comedians and circus music. Like Halley’s comet, genius appears rarely. Unlike Halley’s comet we never know where it is going next to appear, but when it does it will not be a result of but despite the system. Sergei Prokofiev was such a genius.


Sergei Prokofiev died of a massive brain haemorrhage on the 5th March 1953 at 9 pm. With great irony Josef Stalin died just under an hour later. Prokofiev’s death went unreported for some days, not so that of Stalin. Prokofiev’s flat was close to Red Square where the crowds came out to pay their last respects…to Stalin. The streets of Moscow were blocked off and traffic had come to a standstill. It cost a tremendous effort to move Prokofiev’s coffin from his apartment for a civil funeral. There was no room in the newspapers for an obituary. As Galina Vishnevskaya, wife of Mstislav Rostropovitch, wrote “And while hundreds of thousands of people trampled one another in the frenzy to bow one last time to the superman-murderer, the dark dank basement on Myauskaya Street was almost empty – the only people present being Prokofiev’s family and friends who happened to live nearby and could break through the police barriers”