Prokofiev and the press:a commentary

Noelle MANN

Classica cover

Piano cover

So, if opinions and interpretations in the West remain opposed, what does Russia think of Prokofiev today? There too opinions are divided, but for different and more profound reasons. Russia’s assessment of its own recent past went through painful processes within which one can identify two stages. After Perestroika, Russians started to demystify Stalinism by unveiling and documenting the atrocities that had affected the majority of them. They firmly divided their historical perception and memory of Soviet times into two irreconcilable entities: Soviet officialdom linked to Stalin and his associates, from which they are trying to dissociate themselves; and Soviet identity of which they have remained proud, as it represents their suffering and power to survive with honour under adversity. Whereas Soviet identity became an icon, Soviet officialdom, they decided, had to be first denounced and condemned, and then wiped out of the collective memory. This of course led to a re-assessment of all public personalities under Stalin, including artists such as Prokofiev. This is illustrated by Taruskin when he reports that post-Soviet writers had condemned Prokofiev as a cynical and greedy man who had taken advantage of the political situation. I personally encountered this attitude in Moscow a few years ago, during a meeting with an elderly, high-ranking civil servant. My statement that Prokofiev was their “great Soviet composer”, met with a portentous reply: “Prokofiev was Russia’s greatest composer in Soviet times. Shostakovich is the greatest Soviet composer.” Unlike Shostakovich who testified to the people’s suffering, Prokofiev failed to embody the Soviet spirit and identity, and consequently remains associated with Soviet officialdom. Shostakovich must live on, while part of Prokofiev must disappear. Norman Lebrecht thoughtfully comments on this delicate issue: “Prokofiev, by dying with Stalin, is buried with him in our collective subconscious. We avoid most of his music because of the associations it evokes, and the Russians treat it circumspectly because the evil is still alive.” And regrettably, this was the message recently given by Vladimir Ashkenazy in an ambitious London Festival, in March 2003. In “Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin”, Ashkenazy programmed a series of evenings during which some of Prokofiev’s official party works were performed alongside, and in stark contrast to, some of Shostakovich’s most profound and moving works. In spite of his undeniable passion for and devotion to Prokofiev’s piano music and works such as Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, Ashkenazy still perceives the composer as a cold man who failed to see or testify to the horrors of Soviet life. The quality of the works is not put in question, but their composer’s motives remain tainted, at least for some.
     But new thinking is emerging in Russia, where some are starting to look at their Soviet past beyond the dark Stalinian lens. James Meek again, looking at a new production of Betrothal in a Monastery by Alexander Titel (Director of the Stanislavsky & Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre), writes: “Titel’s jolly, poster-colour production of Betrothal is based on a Russian view of the past that has led to western misunderstanding of Soviet and post-Soviet culture in recent decades. Where western critics have judged Soviet artists politically, according to the extent to which they resisted, criticised or were injured by the communist regime, many Russians cling to the uncomfortable truth that, even in the most evil of dictatorships, it is possible to experience personal joy, love and laughter. Titel’s Betrothal is nostalgia for a world of beautiful lies, a reluctance by a certain post-Soviet generation to abandon fond childhood memories just because they nested within Stalin’s terror.” In spite of revisionists’ efforts to kill any form of nostalgia for Soviet times, a more dispassionate view, politically incorrect and accordingly raucously resisted by many, is starting to emerge in Russia: the horrors of life under Stalin should not let us forget that there was were also opportunities and time for “personal joy, love and laughter”, devoid of political implications. Might it not have been legitimate for an artist to sustain a positive discourse under Stalin, and still retain his integrity? Prokofiev’s image might be accordingly changing in Russia, a thought Naum Kleiman, Director of the Eisenstein Museum in Moscow, seems to share: “Five years after his death”, declared Kleiman, “there was a Prokofiev memorial evening at the Moscow Conservatory where they spoke of his work only in superlatives. After that his reputation came to be overshadowed by that of Dmitri Shostakovich. Now it’s coming to be understood that Prokofiev and Shostakovich were equally important; that if Shostakovich was Michelangelo, Prokofiev was Leonardo da Vinci.”
     If I may be permitted my own commentary at this point, recently unveiled primary sources, such as the 1907-1933 Diary and correspondence, are throwing a new light on Prokofiev, this complex man. In spite of personal and professional suffering in the last ten years of his life, there is little evidence he gave in to doom or despair, for this went against his nature and more importantly, against beliefs that were deeply thought through. His entire life was given to fighting adversity and developing an inner strength to face evil with dignity and courage. Much influenced by Christian Science as from the mid-1920s, he acquired a source of strength by looking at the light, at the bright side of human nature and endeavour, an attitude that pervades most of his works. By the time Socialist Realism insisted on a positive attitude as representative of the new Soviet cultural identity, Prokofiev had already defined his own personal positive engagement. There was little light in late 1930s Moscow, but there was a vast people to educate, a challenge Prokofiev had chosen to address as he settled back in Moscow, as a close reading of the wide range of documents, letters, diary entries reveals. He was determined to build a new musical language, and to join in the great musical future that the Union of Soviet Composers had been created to deliver. For the first time in his life, it appears that Prokofiev had set himself a social mission, with no political or careerist motives, and it would have been unthinkable for him to express pain and suffering when addressing the masses. This he kept for his most profound chamber works such as those we heard at the Anniversary Gala Concert (5 March 2003). He was there to help, not to cry or de-stabilise his audience. He might have lacked judgement, even have been “naive” as some say; but in my view his integrity should not be questioned.
     The debate on Prokofiev’s stance in the Soviet Union, and whether his party works should be performed again, will no doubt go on, but most critics have welcomed the fact that his complete output is progressively being explored and recorded. “Prokofiev’s reputation”, added James Meek, “stands to benefit from an end to the rift which lasted for much of the 20th century, between the intellectuals who knew the breadth of his work but felt disdain for his crowd-pleasing lyricism, and the mass audiences who saw and heard only his greatest hits”. Looking back at Prokofiev in the British press so far, I find it encouraging that so many important issues have been raised and explored, if not debated at great length. It is undeniable that, while widely acknowledged as a great, inspired and most original composer, Prokofiev still leaves many people uncomfortable, in Russia and in the West. The need continues, therefore, to open up a debate and to investigate in greater depth the personal, social, cultural and political circumstances in Prokofiev’s entire life, not just over the Soviet years. And if much remains to be documented and discussed, “Prokofiev 2003” at least had the merit to highlight issues, and to perform works, which call for an on-going critical assessment.     

Magazine issues dedicated to Prokofiev

BBC Music Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 8 (April 2003)
Classica, No. 50 (March 2003)
Crescendo, No. 62 (December 2002/January 2003)
Crescendo, No. 63 (February/March 2003)
Le Monde de la Musique, No. 274 (March 2003)
Piano, Vol. 11, No. 2 (March/April 2003)
Pianowereld, No. 2 (2003)


Fawkes, Richard. “Do you know Prokofiev?” Classical Music (1 March 2003), 27.

Lebrecht, Norman. “Stalin’s final victim.” Evening Standard (Wednesday 26 February 2003), 45.

Meek, James. “Out of Stalin’s Shadow.” The Guardian (Friday 17 January 2003), 2-4.

Nice, David. “Prokofiev for the people.” Financial Times Weekend (1-2 March 2003), 8.

Siepmann, Jeremy. “At the Piano with Prokofiev.” Piano, Vol. 11, No. 2 (March/April 2003), 19-31.

Taruskin, Richard. “Great Artists Serving Stalin Like a Dog.” The New York Times (Sunday 28 May 1995).

Taruskin, Richard. “Stalin Lives On in the Concert Hall, but Why?” The New York Times (Sunday 25 August 1996), 26 & 31.

Back to Summary