March 13, 2013

Prokofiev, Conflicted: Great Composer or Great Compromiser?

Sergei Prokofiev: ‘No matter how painful it is for many composers, myself included, I agree to the resolution of the Central Committee, which establishes the condition for making the whole organism of Soviet music healthy.’

Sergei Prokofiev: ‘No matter how painful it is for many composers, myself included, I agree to the resolution of the Central Committee, which establishes the condition for making the whole organism of Soviet music healthy.’

Fleeing Russia after the Revolution of 1918, Sergei Prokofiev gained recognition as one of the great composers of his time as an expatriate working in the States and in Europe. When he finally returned to his homeland, in 1936, he found the Soviet regime in strict control of the creation of art. In his Statement to the Soviet, he more or less promised to tow the party line. It turned out to be less.

From 1919 to 1930 the great Russian composer Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev lived abroad, achieving major success as a composer and conductor in the United States (in New York and Chicago) and in Europe (Paris and London), during which time he completed some of his most famous works, including the opera The Gambler (written in 1917, revised in 1927), his First String Concerto op. 50 (1930) and the ballet Na Dnepre (dedicated to the memory of Diaghilev).

He was driven from Russia by the February Revolution of 1918. Though enthusiastic about the general idea of revolution, especially in terms of seeking a radical break with tradition in the arts, he was not well versed in the wider implications of the revolution’s socialist agenda as it applied to the arts, specifically concerning the gradual tightening of stylistic control that the Soviet regime subsequently imposed on the creation of art. Ultimately, the political and social upheaval of that year led Prokofiev to go abroad.

Hilary Hahn, with Lorin Maazel and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, performs the first movement (Andantino) of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1

During Prokofiev’s expat years, he maintained his ties to Russia by returning intermittently for concert tours and performances. In 1923, a new Soviet publication presented a series of laudatory articles discussing his work and his success abroad. From then on, most of his repertoire was performed regularly in the Soviet Union. Subsequently his music was published under the auspices of the Soviet State Music Publishing House.

It may have been a mix of homesickness, nationalistic pride and career advancement that caused Prokofiev to move his family back to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1936. Unfortunately by this time in Russia, the return meant that he was required to follow certain conventions in his compositions. By the late 1920s the Communist party had begun to view the most recent artistic movements, such as formalism, impressionism and cubism as decadent, since they existed before the revolution. Under the Soviet government a special bureau was created, the Composers’ Union, to keep track of artists and their works. The works created under the Stalinist government had to eschew all aspects of modernism and be explicitly focused on the doctrine of “socialist realism,” which relied heavily on the imagery of art depicting and glorifying the proletariat’s struggle toward socialist progress.

It is unclear if Prokofiev had really assessed the political situation in Russia and, it seems, that he may have returned under the promise of preferential treatment. For example, he was able to maintain a passport (though it was subsequently revoked in 1938) and to continue having an international concert career; this was not a common practice during this time in Russia. Perhaps equally enticing for his ego was the opportunity to be the leading composer in Russia—in the United States he was second to Rachmaninoff and in Europe he was overshadowed by Stravinsky. And despite Prokofiev making cautious adaptations of his musical style to fit into the Soviet ideal during this period, he did indeed produce some highly regarded works. These include the famous symphonic fairytale Peter and the Wolf op. 67 (1936) and the film scores for the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander the Great and Ivan the Terrible, which were later set as the concert works op. 78, (1938-1939) and op. 116 (1942-1945), respectively.

The musical themes of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, from the 2008 Oscar winning animated film version of the composer’s classic story, with accompaniment by the City of London Sinfonia. Each character in the story is associated with a particular musical instrument, as shown in this video, and before the orchestra performs Prokofiev’s lively music the narrator sets the scene and introduces the animated cast.

This live stage show incorporates cutting-edge video technology and ingenious models, while the film, projected above the stage, uses stop-frame animation, bringing the captivating world of Peter and the Wolf alive before your eyes.

In 1941, he separated from his wife and began a relationship with the twenty-five-year-old Mira Mendelson. This divorce created an unstable situation for his former wife. Being of Spanish descent and living in Russia, she was closely scrutinized by the Soviet government. In 1948, she was convicted of espionage for trying to send money to her mother via an embassy and was sentenced to twenty years in the Gulag, only to be released after Stalin’s death.

During World War II, there was a slight relaxing of the government control over the arts, but in 1946 the Soviet Party once again tightened its oversight on its production. Under the new stricter policies, a majority of Prokofiev’s works were seen as examples of decadent “formalism” and were therefore deemed a threat to the Soviet people. In 1948, Prokofiev wrote a public letter to the Composers’ Union, denouncing his earlier music and then set out to write a new opera titled The Story of a Real Man based on the true story of an injured pilot who became a war hero

Battle scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) with music by Sergei Prokofiev

His last opera was not well received by the state and Prokofiev found it difficult to compose much more due to the compromise between the official aesthetic and his personal concept of art. To complicate matters, by this time he had suffered several heart attacks and was plagued by severe headaches. As a result, his doctors forbade him to work.

Ironically, Prokofiev’s death on March 5, 1953, went largely unnoticed, since the death of his cultural oppressor, Stalin, died on the same day.


Sergei Prokofiev’s Statement to the Soviet (1948)

‘I am also guilty of atonality’


Because the condition of my health deprives me of the opportunity to attend and to participate in the general meeting of composers, I wish to express in this letter, which I ask you to read at the meeting, my thought concerning the decisions of the General Committee of the Party of February 10, 1948.

The decision of the Central Committee of February 10, 1948, has separated the rotten threads from the healthy ones in the creative work of composers. No matter how painful it is for many composers, myself included, I agree to the resolution of the Central Committee, which establishes the condition for making the whole organism of Soviet music healthy. The resolution is especially valuable because it exposes a formalistic direction foreign to the Soviet people, a direction leading to the impoverishment and downfall of music, and with great clarity shows us the goals which we must reach for the best interests of the Soviet people.

I shall talk of myself. Elements of formalism were already peculiar to my music fifteen or twenty years ago.

A scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet; choreography by Kenneth MacMillan; with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Boris Gruzin

The contagion appeared evidently from contact with a number of Western friends. After the exposure by Pravda of formalistic mistakes in the Shostakovich opera, I thought a great deal about the creative manner of my music and came to the conclusion that such a direction was incorrect. As a result, there followed a search for clear and more expressive language. In a number of my following works, Alexander Nevsky, Zdravitza, Romeo and Juliet, the Fourth Symphony, I attempted to liberate my work from the element of formalism, and I consider I have succeeded to a certain extent. The existence of formalism in several of my compositions is probably explained by a certain complacency and by insufficiently clear recognition that it is totally unwanted by our people. However, after the resolution which has shaken to the depths our whole society of composers it became apparent exactly specific music is needed by our people, and the ways of curing the formalistic ailment have become clear.

I have never doubted the importance of melody. I like melody very much, and I consider it the most important element in music, and I labor many years on the improvement of its quality in my compositions. The most difficult task for a composer is to find a melody comprehensible even to the uninitiated audience. Here he is confronted with many dangers. He can fall into trivial or mundane paths, or into rewriting that which has already been composed. For this reason, the composing of more complicated melodies is considerably easier. It sometimes happens that the composer works over his melody and corrects it for so long that, without noticing it, he makes it extremely complicated and loses its simplicity. In the process of work, I fell into this trap.

When composing, there must be special vigilance that the melody remain simple but, at the same time, does not become cheap, sweet, or imitative. This is easier to say than to achieve. And all my efforts will be directed to making these words more than a mere formula, enabling me to apply them in my future works.

Prokofiev’s Prologue and Overture from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible (1944), performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Chorus; conductor, Riccardo Muti; vocal by Boris Morgunov

I am also guilty of atonality, which is often related to formalism, although I must confess with happiness that I began to yearn for tonal music long ago. Then I felt that the construction of musical composition “in tone” is construction of the building on a solid base, but construction “without tone” is construction on the sand. Besides, the greater range of opportunity in tonal and distonal music than in atonal and chromatic music is especially well demonstrated by that impasse in which Schönberg and his followers find themselves. In some of my compositions of recent years individual atonal moments can be found. Without feeling any special sympathy for this device, I still use it, particularly for contrast, and to accent tonal passages. In the future I hope to overcome this device.

In my operatic creations I am often reproached when using a recitative rather than a singing line. I like the stage as such very much. I consider that a man having come to the opera has a right to demand impressions not only for the ear but also for the eye. (Otherwise he would not have gone to an opera but to a concert.) But movement on the stage can be better adapted to recitative, whereas singing to a certain degree demands immobility on the stage. I remember how painful it was to look at the stage during some Wagnerian operas, when for the duration of a whole act of about an hour in length not a single person moved. This very fear of immobility has prevented my concentration on singing for a long time. In connection with the resolution, I meticulously considered this question and came to the conclusion that in each opera libretto there exist passages absolutely demanding recitative, and passages absolutely demanding singing. But there are also certain passages, and these passages require an enormous place, sometimes as much as half of the whole opera, which the composer may interpret according to his own wish, either by recitative or by aria. Let us take, for example, Tatyana’s letter from Eugene Onegin; it would have been very easy to write a large part in recitative, but Tchaikovsky has used his musical language in the direction of singing and has presented the whole letter as a great aria, which has the advantage that it is performed with some simultaneous action on the stage. In this manner it gives food not only for the ear but also for the eye. It is in this direction that I wish to place my work on my new opera on a contemporary Soviet subject, The Story of a Real Man by Polevoy.

Allegro movement of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major op 92, on Kabardinian Themes. Performed by the Euphonia String Quartet

I was greatly pleased by the instruction in the resolution on the desirability of polyphony, especially in choir and ensemble singing. This is a really interesting problem for a composer, and a real pleasure for the listener. In the above-mentioned opera I intend to introduce trios, duets, and counterpoint development of choir, for which I make use of the extremely interesting notes of northern Russian folksongs. The clear melodies and as much as possible simple harmonic language, such are other elements which I will try to obtain in this opera.

In conclusion, I should like to express my gratitude to our Party for the clear decisions of the resolution, which help me to find a musical language comprehensible to our people, worthy of our people and of our great country.

(Source: Music Academy Online)