“In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve Man, the people… He must be a citizen first and foremost.” – Sergei Prokofiev
Of all places throughout history to pursue a career as an artist, Stalin’s Russia probably ranks fairly low on the list. Composers were expected to write rousing, patriotic music that spoke to the masses, or risk disappearing into the night in one of Stalin’s infamous purges. Yet it’s exactly to this inhospitable environment that Prokofiev decided to return in 1936, having emigrated during the Revolution, travelling through Siberia and Japan to the United States. Stravinsky attributed Prokofiev’s return to his political naivety, a foolish belief that his fame would grant him preferential treatment; Prokofiev however described his time in America as miserable, and his musical career there never matched the success of Rachmaninov, to whom he was often compared. In any event, after an initial period of relatively peaceful coexistence following his return, Prokofiev began to butt heads with the regime. When he was finally accused in 1948 of “formalism” – writing music which didn’t serve the purpose of glorifying the regime – he was forced along with Shostakovich and some other offenders to put his name to a degrading public apology:
“We are tremendously grateful to the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party and personally to you, dear Comrade Stalin, for the severe but profoundly just criticism of the present state of Soviet music… We shall bend every effort to apply our knowledge and our artistic mastery to produce vivid realistic music reflecting the life and struggles of the Soviet people.”
Have a listen to the Dance of the Knights (also known as Montagues and Capulets), from his Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2, Op. 64, played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. In the process of writing it Prokofiev was subjected to numerous demands from Soviet cultural officials, and the work wasn’t performed until 1940, nearly five years after it was composed. Listen out for the classic theme starting at 1:26.
From that moment until the end of his life, Prokofiev churned out trivial pellets of propaganda, a sad conclusion to the life’s work of a genius. In his best years however, he was one of the few Soviet composers able to craft true masterpieces under Stalin’s austere censorship (Shostakovich being another), outwardly fulfilling his obligations while voicing subtle musical protests. Listen for example to the somber second movement of his Piano Sonata No. 7 in B♭ major, Op. 83, played by Valentina Lisitsa; in a form of veiled dissent, Prokofiev based the opening theme on Schumann’s song Wehmut (“Sadness”) which contains the words “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart.”
Prokofiev also succeeded in creating high art in propaganda. One his greatest works is his soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, which tells the story of the defence of Novgorod from invading Teutonic knights in the 13th century (commissioned by Stalin to stir up sentiment against the Nazis). Have a listen to the climactic Battle on the Ice.
One of Prokofiev’s most beloved works, a favourite of mine from childhood, is Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67. Prokofiev penned a simple children’s story for the piece involving various animals and a grumpy grandfather, each of which is represented by a specific instrument – Peter is played by the strings (the buoyant opening theme), the grandfather by the bassoon, and the wolf by French horns (to name just a few of the roles). Some suggest that the story is in fact an allegory for the political climate of the 1930s – I can’t say that ever crossed my mind listening to it as a kid, but it’s one of those timeless pieces which I think is impossible not to enjoy however you interpret it. Here it is played below by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein:
A little known fact about Prokofiev is that he was also a master chess player. He was so strong in fact, that in 1914 he was able to defeat future world champion José Raúl Capablanca, albeit in a simultaneous exhibition (a match where Capablanca was playing against multiple opponents on different boards at the same time). This is nonetheless an incredible achievement during a period when Capablanca was regarded as nearly invincible, and all the more so considering Prokofiev was playing as black! Anyone so inclined can find the game here. In 1924 Prokofiev played another beautiful game against Ravel, which, just to indulge any fellow chess nerds that may be following my blog, I thought I’d include here in part. In the game, Prokofiev sacrificed a piece for a king-side attack, resulting in the position below:
Ravel then erred by playing 21. …Bxf5? after which Prokofiev ended the game in style with 22. Rh8+!, Kxh8 23. Qh5+, Kg8 24. Qh7+, Kf8 25. Qh8#
Ironically, Prokofiev died on March 5th, 1953 – the very same day as Stalin. Yet in spite of the difficult circumstances in which he spent much of his adult life as a musician, he remains one of the most frequently performed 20th century composers to this day.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D♭ Major, Op. 10, played by Daniil Trifonov and the Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, conducted by Valery Gergiev. An early work of Prokofiev’s, before he had to battle with Soviet censors.
Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, dubbed by Prokofiev his Classical Symphony as he wrote it in the style of Haydn
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26, 1st movement played by Martha Argerich and the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado
Waltz from Cinderella, Op. 87, by the Dutch National Ballet
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 92, 1st movement, played by the Escher String Quartet