The Tribulations of a Curator

First page of the piano score of Prokofievᅰs Anthem.
First page of the piano score of Prokofiev’s Anthem.

It was early December 2000, and a bad day. The rain was lashing against the window panes, but then it had been so for about six weeks. The central heating was not working. Due to building work in progress next door, I had been disconnected from the College Network and could feel the weight of incoming mail piling up into my e-mail inbox. The phone rang. The voice was friendly and warm and I felt immediately engaged. Newsnight on BBC2 was exploring a news item: the Russian Duma’s vote for a new – and hopefully permanent – National Anthem. Would I like to take part in this and would I have suggestions? My response was more than hesitant since, for all my love for Russian music, I felt there was nothing of interest I could bring to the debate – except perhaps..., and in the back of my memory there lingered a recollection. “Yes I think I have a copy of a national anthem Prokofiev wrote in 1943 when he took part in a national competition for a new Russian anthem, and which, to my knowledge, has never been publicly performed.” My interlocutor was immediately interested.
     – Can we do it for tomorrow night?
     – What... the performance?
     – Yes of course.
     I could hardly believe my ears. It is notorious that the BBC works fast but in this instance, I wasn’t even sure the score at the Archive was complete. We agreed to speak again the following morning.
     Discarding all other pressing matters, I rushed to the archival boxes (still awaiting organising and cataloguing) and extracted some photos of the manuscripts. These had been donated to the Archive two years previously by Valeria Blok, widow of the musicologist and composer, Vladimir Blok. Prokofiev enthusiasts might remember that Blok’s new chamber-orchestra version of Prokofiev’s Concertino for Cello was released by Boosey & Hawkes in 1997, and first performed by Stephen Isserlis in Cardiff. A staunch supporter of Prokofiev’s music, Blok had gathered a large amount of printed music and photocopies of manuscripts, in the course of his lifelong work and research on Prokofiev. After his death, his widow Valeria became most concerned about the fate of her husband’s music collection, particularly since none of their children was musical. When she heard about the Serge Prokofiev Archive in London, she approached me offering to donate her husband’s library to the Archive, a gift I accepted with enthusiasm and gratefulness. In the Vladimir Blok collection lies a copy of the manuscript of Prokofiev’s National Anthem, the original of which can be found at the Moscow-based Archive of Literature and Art.
     The next morning, a different voice was on the phone, as charming as the first one. Newsnight was determined to broadcast the first performance of Prokofiev’s anthem that very night (6 December). “But who will sing it,” I exclaimed, “the singer must be Russian!” But nothing could stop the BBC! My contact, having ascertained my availability, promised to come back to me soon. It was then 12:30 and the recording session, he said, would have to be over by 17:30.

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