Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Great Russian Composer Sergei Prokofiev

"[T]he 21st-century consensus is ill at ease with his life choices. With [Sergei] Prokofiev, there is always the proverbial elephant in the room.

Having left Russia for the west in 1918, the composer returned - amid much fanfare - to his homeland in 1936, at the very point when Stalin's show trials and mass deportations were reaching industrial proportions. And there he remained, occasionally hymning the Soviet regime in his work, until his death 17 years later. These were, to put it mildly, controversial decisions both then and now. They raise awkward ethical and political doubts about the kind of person who could make such choices." ---The Guardian

The famous Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev sometimes seemed morally blind to what was happening in the U.S.S.R., at least until his Spanish wife Lina was accused of being a spy and sent to a prison camp.

When Lina was arrested, Prokofiev had already left her and was living with a young woman named Mira Mendelson, but he did try to get the mother of his two sons freed. Prokofiev may have been walking on eggshells:

The details of the matter are complicated, and it has been suggested that political dealings were involved. Lina Prokofiev, as a foreigner, was certainly by that time persona non grata in Moscow; some years later she was arrested on charges of espionage and comitted to a labour camp. Mira Mendelson had strong party ties and, as Seroff has aptly put it, the years 1939-41 were less conducive to romance than they were to survival. Prokofiev was never completely estranged from her, and Mira Mendelson, though she lived with the composer until his death, was not, as Soviet sources state, his second wife. [McAllister, Rita. "Prokofiev, Sergey." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Sadie, Stanley. Washington DC: Groves Dictionaries of Music Inc., 1980, pp. 288-301. Cited in a very interesting article called "Mystery and Contradiction."]

In an interesting article about Prokofiev, The Telegraph (1-23-03) observes:

Whereas Shostakovich always seemed to be ducking and diving with the Soviet authorities, Prokofiev seemed able to remain aloof. The worst aspects of Stalin's regime did not impinge on them for the time being. "In the Thirties," says [Prokofiev's son] Sviatoslav, "there were many people among the intelligentsia who were in favour of communism, because, in theory, it was a very just system, but the practicalities hadn't been considered. They were a bit naïve. I think that my father was also a little naive when he decided to return, above all because he didn't understand what was happening."

Ashkenazy thinks Prokofiev "kind of welcomed what was happening in Russia and wanted to see the brighter side. He didn't want to see the tragedy. With this welcome back into his country, he felt he should do what the country wanted him to do."

...His attitude was just to go along with the general flow."

But soon that general flow became distinctly choppy. In 1941, Prokofiev left his wife [Lina] and family to live with a young woman he had met on holiday, Mira Mendelson, who was eventually to help him with the librettos of his operas Betrothal in a Monastery and The Story of a Real Man and with his ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower. [Sons] Sviatoslav, Oleg and their mother, Lina, were left in Moscow.

Lina, who was Spanish, was constantly under suspicion in Moscow as a foreigner and presumed spy, and in 1948 was arrested, tried and committed to 20 years' hard labour "for treason". Suddenly, the realities of the paranoid Soviet Union had come to bear even on Prokofiev, but he was able to do nothing to alleviate his wife's plight. It must be remembered that 1948 was also the year in which he, along with Shostakovich and practically all the major and minor composers, were condemned by Stalin's notorious henchman, Andrey Zhdanov, for not toeing the Party line. Prokofiev was on a blacklist himself.

Somehow or other, Lina survived the labour camp, was allowed back to Moscow after eight years and eventually moved to Paris, dying only as recently as 1989.

The Guardian (7-21-06) comments:

With Prokofiev, there is always the proverbial elephant in the room.

Having left Russia for the west in 1918, the composer returned - amid much fanfare - to his homeland in 1936, at the very point when Stalin's show trials and mass deportations were reaching industrial proportions. And there he remained, occasionally hymning the Soviet regime in his work, until his death 17 years later. These were, to put it mildly, controversial decisions both then and now. They raise awkward ethical and political doubts about the kind of person who could make such choices. And when this is combined with the sense of emotional distance that is already a feature of much of Prokofiev's music, it adds up to something troubling.

If Prokofiev were merely seen as enigmatic and cynical, his standing would be less in doubt. But ironic, mordant, dry - the words that recur in discussions of Prokofiev's music - no longer seem sufficiently weighty in the context of his decision to return to Russia. It seems as if his standing today is constrained by a sense of some deeper moral inadequacy.

Yet Prokofiev is hardly the only composer of his or any other era against whom such charges could be levelled. It is hard to deny that the composer who locked himself away in 1917 to write the Classical Symphony - and who again sat down in 1940 to write his comic opera Betrothal in a Monastery, based on an 18th-century play by Sheridan - must have been a man who preferred to turn his back on his times, but he was not the only escapist composer of those years. Britten, after all, responded to the European war by fleeing to America, and the German-born Strauss by writing his benign conversational masterpiece Capriccio. Yet while the reputations of Britten and Strauss ride high, Prokofiev remains an enigma.

Furthermore, there is no doubt Prokofiev was a difficult person. Contemporary assessments are often unflattering. "Sergei Prokofiev was an extremely interesting person, but dangerous," recalled Sviatoslav Richter, who became the composer's chosen interpreter of much of his late piano music. "Principles weren't exactly his strong point." But, added the pianist, "As long as Prokofiev was alive you could always expect a miracle, as if in the presence of a conjuror who, with a wave of his magic wand, could produce the most fabulous riches."

If his controversial Testimony memoir is to be trusted, Shostakovich was just as critical. "Prokofiev was not inclined towards friendly relations in general. He was a hard man and didn't seem interested in anything other than himself and his music." He cultivated an arrogance towards others and would say everything was "amusing". Prokofiev had a chip on his shoulder, Shostakovich believed - even though Shostakovich himself admitted he resented the older composer's success and wealth.

Prokofiev is remembered for his children's symphony Peter and the Wolf. [Watch a video here and here.]

His famous "Montagues and Capulets," also known as "Dance of the Knights," is from the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Wikipedia explains:

A dark and atmospheric piece, it has become a de facto signature tune for the Soviet era, and is used as the soundtrack for numerous dramas, documentaries and adverts that have Soviet subject matter. [Watch a video here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

I think the first few chords of the piece are used in this excerpt from the Russian film Burnt by the Sun. The man in the picture is a Stalin-era NKVD agent. The balloon in the original film had a picture of Stalin on it, but the Youtube poster is expressing his opinion of Russia's former President Putin.

During the Stalin era, the Soviet propaganda apparatus would float balloons of Stalin around the countryside. In Burnt by the Sun, the young, vindictive NKVD foreign agent Mischa returns to his hometown on a mission of revenge--to arrest a famous Soviet general, the husband of his old lover Marussya.

For a "joke" on his family, Mischa first appears in an a comic NKVD disguise that also functions as a metaphpor for his moral character: He impersonates a blind man. But the "joke" turns into black humor when Mischa betrays and destroys the family that took him in as a child.

It is interesting that "The Montagues and Capulets" has become the signature tune for the Soviet era since Prokofiev, by some accounts, was a self-absorbed man who has been judged harshly for his escapism and apparent compromises with Stalin's regime.

Still, perhaps if you listen very closely to Peter and the Wolf (also part one and two), you might hear that Prokofiev recognized "the elephant in the room" after all. What do you think?

At the end of the children's symphony Peter and the Wolf, Peter, his animal friends, his grandfather, and the hunters all celebrate their victory over the wolf with a triumphal march.

Prokofiev also composed the score for Sergei Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky. Here is the famous scene called "The Battle on the Ice."

Prokofiev's 17 years in Stalin's Russia may have been a battle on the ice, too. Wikipedia comments:

Prokofiev died at the age of 61 on 5 March 1953: the same day as Stalin. He had lived near Red Square, and for three days the throngs gathered to mourn Stalin making it impossible to carry Prokofiev's body out for the funeral service at the headquarters of the Soviet Composer's Union. Paper flowers and a taped recording of the funeral march from Romeo and Juliet had to be used, as all real flowers and musicians were reserved for Stalin's funeral. He is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. The leading Soviet musical periodical reported Prokofiev's death as a brief item on page 116. The first 115 pages were devoted to the death of Stalin.

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