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Prokofiev: His life as a composer in Stalinist Russia

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Introduction

Prokofiev: His life Prokofiev lived and composed in Stalinist Russia for 20 years, saw his wife hustled off to a labour camp, and died on the same day as the dictator in 1953. Peter Conrad finds both civic duty and subterfuge in his music. Ever since Thomas Mann extolled the "sufferings and greatness" of Wagner, we have expected composers to lead heroic lives, of which their music is the fraught, arduous, ultimately triumphant record. Strauss even wrote a symphonic autobiography called Bin Heldenleben, in which his grandiose achievement is to pummel and rout a gang of sneering critics. Mahler, thanks to his illness, qualified for martyrdom; so did Shostakovich, tormented by Stalin's cultural bureaucrats. We are less sure what to think of composers who settle for diligent, lucrative professional careers, and refuse to dramatise their own miseries - Stravinsky, for instance, who mocked the idea that music expressed emotion and took pride in composing "strictly according to the precepts of the Conservatory", or Prokofiev, the sly, teasing, freakishly skilful virtuoso whose death in 1953 is being commemorated this year. As a young man, Prokofiev took pride in his technical facility: "I would blacken about ten pages of manuscript a day," he boasted. In later life, he composed on trains, ships and in hospital beds. Creation did not involve struggle; it was a drill, an exercise in almost Stakhanovite productivity. ...read more.

Middle

The revolution had already outlived its early fervour; it was becoming institutionalised and turning towards totalitarianism. The Comintern headquarters looked, to Prokofiev, like a "huge jar full of microbes destined for worldwide distribution". A production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin that he attended left out the scene when grateful serfs lay their harvest at the feet of a landowner, as this was considered "insulting to the Workers' and Peasants' Government". Irony had always been Prokofiev's defence: an early collection of piano sketches was called Sarcasms. He thus dealt with dogmatism by joking about it. Once he had to visit a friend at home in Marxistskaya Street in Moscow. The name was so modishly new that no one could locate it; Prokofiev complained that he wasted a small fortune as his taxi searched for the obscure address. Despite the symptoms of a newly repressive orthodoxy, he chose to repatriate himself in 1933. He was surrendering, he explained, to the atavistic tug of Mother Russia: he needed to smell his native soil, to experience "real winters" and the kind of abrupt, convulsive spring that Stravinsky celebrated in Le Sacre du Printemps. Told this way, the story of his homecoming is one of naivety cruelly betrayed. His Spanish wife, suspected of collusion with foreign diplomats, was hustled off to a labour camp by the KGB; the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested during rehearsals of Prokofiev's blamelessly patriotic parable Semyon Kotko, tortured and then shot. ...read more.

Conclusion

There were official objections to his ballet Romeo and Juliet: even after he gave the story a happy ending, pandering to a compulsory Soviet optimism, the Bolshoi directorate rejected his score. Had the commissars noticed the thunderous, menacing tread of the dancers in armour at the Capulet ball, or the bludgeoning cataclysm in the orchestra when the Duke lays d own the law? Perhaps there is also a coded protest in the innocent beast fable of Peter and the Wolf. The hunters lumber about like a Soviet militia and fire their guns in instrumental fusillades, but it is Peter who outwits the wolf, relying on his own sneaky ingenuity. And though the predatory ogre gobbles up the ingenuous duck, he is too stupidly greedy to kill it. He wolfs it down without chewing, and at the end it can still be heard valiantly quacking inside his belly. The victim has the last word, and a funeral march speeds up into another antic scherzo. Prokofiev and Stalin both died on 5 March 1953. The demise of the big bad wolf monopolised the news, as the empire he enslaved pretended to grieve; the press did not bother to announce Prokofiev's death until several days later. Half a century on, we remember Stalin only to execrate him, while Prokofiev will be honoured throughout the year in theatres and concert halls all over the world. History is irony in action. Its revenges may be slow, but they are remorseless. ...read more.

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