Sergei Prokofiev Dnevnik 1907-1933

ed. Sviatoslav Prokofiev. 2 vols. Paris: sprkfv., 2002. 812 pp.; 890 pp.1

Serge Prokofiev Diary

1 This review was first published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society 58:1 (Spring 2005): 233-43.

2 The notebooks have a checkered history. Upon leaving Russia for the United States in 1918, Prokofiev left some of them in the care of his mother and others in the care of adolescent friends. In the 1920s, they were twice entrusted to Serge Koussevitzky, who held them at his Paris publishing firm Édition Russe de Musique. Before being transferred to Russia in 1955, two years after Prokofiev’s death, the notebooks were also kept in a safe in the United States (I: 9 and I: 11).

3 See Sergei Prokofiev, Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, trans. and ed. Oleg Prokofiev (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991).

4 Born 1924.

5 All translations from the diary in this review are my own.

6 Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), collection 1929, catalog 1, items 332, 334 and 335; collection 1929, catalog 2, item 98. Works discussed include the opera War and Peace, the ballet Cinderella, the Ode to the End of the War, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and the Eighth Piano Sonata.

7 The difference between those archival sources that are closed and those that are open, however, may not be all that tremendous: the unpublished sketches for Prokofiev’s last ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower (1953) contain heartbreaking comments about his declining health; his unpublished letters to his assistant, Pavel Lamm, furnish details about musical censorship, as do the reminiscences of the composer by the choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky. The documents in question (RGALI, collection 1929, catalog 1, item 84; collection 2743, catalog 1, item 182; and collection 3045, catalog 1, item 155) are readily accessible.

8 His penchant for reusing material is well-known, but here are two examples: the sword fight music for an inchoate 1930 version of The Fiery Angel became the “Dance of the Knights” in the ballet Romeo and Juliet (1936); the lament from the incidental music to Boris Godunov (1936) became “Anastasiia’s illness” in the soundtrack of Ivan the Terrible (1945).

9 Of the 1936 musical Sing Me a Love Song, for example, he wrote: “Singing all the time, owner poses as a clerk in her own store[.] Rescue from bankruptcy[.] Kleptomaniac is caught” (RGALI, collection 1929, catalog 1, item 332, p. 44).

10 See Francis Poulenc, Moi et mes amis. Confidences recueillies par Stéphane Audel (Paris: Palatine, 1963), 157-71.


Page from Serge Prokofiev's Diary


Prokofiev’s dnevnik (diary), an edition of a pile of notebooks preserved at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow since 1955, is at once a sensational illumination of the composer’s creative outlook and an indispensable contribution to the history of modernism.[2]

Indulged as a child, Prokofiev sensed from the start that he would influence history, and made the story of his workaholic, international career into an epic of Homeric proportions. The diary is also a phenomenally entertaining read, reflecting the composer’s unfailing stylishness as a writer. Only one portion of the diary has been translated to date,[3] but Anthony Phillips is working on a complete translation for Faber & Faber. In this review, I will attempt to bring some of the diary’s riches to light by focusing on Prokofiev’s discussions of his departure from Russia in 1918, his life in the United States, his techniques and aesthetics (specifically as they apply to ballet and opera), his religion, and his politics.
   First: a note on the edition. The diary’s editor, Prokofiev’s older son Sviatoslav,[4] reports in the preface that his father recorded his activities as a daily routine, except when traveling or concertizing, when he either avoided writing or resorted to cryptic, vowel-less shorthand (I: 9). Later, Prokofiev would convert these mnemonic jottings into prose, capping the process with the words “dogonial dnevnik”: “caught up with the diary.” Those passages that Prokofiev did not convert into prose are, according to Sviatoslav, indecipherable (I: 9). The diary breaks off in 1933, three years before Prokofiev took up permanent residence in the Soviet Union. Sviatoslav discloses, however, that his father amended the diary later on, making it less an immediate account of his days than a retrospective one:

“Upon arrival in the USSR, Prokofiev did not keep a diary. Moreover, his accounts ceased altogether (unfortunately!). In the manuscripts of the diary one encounters refinements in S[ergei] Prokofiev’s hand, made later in pencil. The last of these is dated 1936 by the author. He evidently understood the seriousness of the content of his notes and did not want them to fall into the hands of the authorities” (I: 11). [5]

   On the surface, this remark seems reasonable: having made his fateful decision to return to his transformed homeland, Prokofiev resolved thereafter to leave his thoughts unwritten. Though Sviatoslav indicates the opposite, the composer did in fact chronicle some of his experiences in the Soviet Union. Between 1936 and 1945, he filled three notebooks with autobiographical remarks, lists of various sorts, and points about nascent works; between August 1952 and March 1953, he compiled a “short diary” (kratkii dnevnik).[6] Access to the last of these items, and to the correspondence between Prokofiev and his closest contacts during the nightmarish years of 1938-39 and 1948-49, requires written permission from the Serge Prokofiev Estate, the diary’s publisher.[7] It would not have made sense to include the fragmented Soviet-era notebooks in the present volume – which is a largely complete and highly accurate account of the composer’s pre-Soviet years – but their existence should perhaps have been mentioned.
   The nexus of the diary is Prokofiev’s account of his journey to the United States. He admits to feeling that he had eluded time and space by leaving Petrograd during the Revolution, and that Petrograd could exact a price for his betrayal. Might one of his former Conservatory friends be correct, he mused in the autumn of 1919, that because “I ‘fled from history,’ haggard Russia won’t embrace me when I return, for she will think and feel otherwise”? (II: 49) Upon his arrival at Angel Island, California, this thought calmed, rather than aggravated, feelings of loneliness, while his immense self-confidence steeled him against creative setbacks.
   Sponsored by the industrialist Cyrus McCormick, Prokofiev’s longest stay in the United States began on August 24, 1918 with a farcical question-and-answer session with customs officials – “Have you ever been in prison?” “Just yours” (I: 727) – and ended on April 27, 1920 with the composer in the midst of a squabble with the Chicago Lyric Opera over the postponement of the production of L’Amour des trois oranges (The Love for Three Oranges, 1919). In between, one learns an enormous amount about his nagging health problems, precarious finances, and attempts to extricate his mother from Russia. His dealings with the Duo-Art company, for whom he created several piano rolls, his simultaneous labor on three (!) operas (The Gambler, The Love for Three Oranges, and The Fiery Angel), and his initial nerve-wracking solo recitals, are likewise recounted in lavish detail. The description of his debut on November 20, 1918 at the Aeolian Hall in New York, for example, offers a glimpse into Prokofiev’s robust mental life:

I sought to prove to myself “through Schopenhauer” that I was a brilliant musician, and the public a “fabricated product of nature,” and that I would appear ridiculous before my own eyes if I succumbed to nerves. My response to this: the public today will be very discerning, and will include people with enough refined sensibility to distinguish what I am doing well and what poorly. I then adopted another conviction: from the perspective of my entire musical life, my first American appearance is an altogether insignificant fact and the issue of success or failure in New York will have no sway whatsoever on my musical career. My response to this: yes, but there is an enormous difference between fleeing America triumphantly, with enough dollars to live freely, as you’d like – and fleeing without success, having incurred debt for the ticket and dissatisfied, albeit aware that simple ragtimes are all Americans need and that the failure won’t affect me. Then I came up with a third argument: in my life I have had many momentous and challenging experiences, through which not all are meant to survive but for which many would give a great deal (I: 748).

   Prokofiev served as his own worst critic; hence he dismissed the mixed reviews of the recital, a program of short works by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and himself, as pompous “blather,” adding, with a mixture of satisfaction and bemusement, that the audience was “stupefied” by the event (I: 748). He appears to have been much more sensitive to criticism of his conducting, a weak spot in his otherwise marvelous St. Petersburg Conservatory education. (Prokofiev’s description of the conducting class at the Conservatory is hilarious, with the instructor, Nikolai Tcherepnin, lampooned as a fuddy-duddy [I: 21-24, 31-32].)
   Regarding Prokofiev’s creativity, the diary offers substantial chronologies of the genesis of his symphonies and stage works. Less is revealed about the genesis of the piano sonatas and concertos, the implication being that they were written at a more relaxed pace, with less hand-wringing about performance and publication deadlines. We learn that, for his symphonies, he conceived the structure of individual movements before their harmonic and melodic contents, and that his unexpected modulations and chromatic dislocations derived from experimentation at the keyboard. Excluding Le Fils prodigue (The Prodigal Son, 1929), Prokofiev began composing his ballets and operas only after their librettos and scenarios had been completed, though, as the process wore on, he would insert musical ideas that he had developed beforehand in his sketchbooks. On October 16, 1914, while working on the ballet Ala et Lolly for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Prokofiev reported:

I’m composing better today than yesterday. Yesterday, every accidental proved cumbersome; today everything follows of its own accord. I’ve mobilized all of the fragments and little themes that I composed in the spring and summer on scrap paper (I: 513).

Diaghilev decided not to stage the ballet, prompting the composer to retool the score as an orchestral work, the Scythian Suite (1915). Discarded passages reappeared in later works, Prokofiev being a habitual recycler. [8]
   We come to understand his aesthetics through his assessments of the works of his Russian, American, and French rivals. His initial reactions tend to be self-consciously severe, but soften over time, with scores dismissed tout court as “formless” (his favorite adjective) later receiving praise for subtleties of timbre and texture. Prokofiev realized, perhaps, that his skills at orchestration paled when compared to his talent for harmonic and melodic invention and variation, and thus favored the latter over the former in his piquant criticism. Sometimes his summaries are contradictory: he called Scriabin’s tone poem Prometheus “remarkable,” but also tagged it “boring, lacking animation, dominated by trills and splashes, with a diffuse form” (I: 372). Vladimir Dukelsky, who changed his name to Vernon Duke when he settled in the United States, is praised in 1925 for the clarity of his musical language – “Dukelsky is right: one ought to write more simply and diatonically” (II: 324) – but later mocked for his infatuation with light genres and Broadway stars (II: 746). However Prokofiev himself entertained offers to write what he called “fully accessible music for the masses” (II: 756). In February 1930, Gloria Swanson asked him to create the soundtrack for the romantic comedy What a Woman. Though the project did not come to fruition (he asked for too high a fee), it caught his fancy. His notebook of 1934-36 includes a list of the Hollywood and European films that he saw, with quips about the soundtracks and plots. [9]
   Prokofiev saves his most trenchant critiques for neoclassical French composers. Ravel’s score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912), which he heard in Paris on the same bill as Stravinsky’s Petrushka, emitted what he called a “pleasant aroma,” but proved unsuitable for choreography: “As it pertains to the poetic maidens and the forest vistas,” Prokofiev declared, “the music is tender and reacts to the stage, but [Ravel’s] total impotence is exposed in the build-ups to dramatic moments and the Bacchante dances” (I: 301). He evidently did not know that the disjunction between the music and the choreography in the ballet stemmed from a dispute between Ravel and the choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, concerning the representation of Hellenic antiquity. In keeping with his rather traditional tastes, Prokofiev dismissed another ballet, Poulenc’s Les biches (The House Party, 1924), as an example of superficial modishness. The scenario, detailing a series of less-than-innocent flirtations on and around a blue sofa, inspired a score that Prokofiev found diffuse (“four-measure phrases are tied to other, unrelated four-measure phrases”), non-developmental, and crudely, albeit “sweetly,” orchestrated (II: 259-60). Later, after he had completed his stylistic transition from neo-primitivism to neo-classicism, Prokofiev came to respect, even admire Poulenc. [10] The one Ravel score to inspire him was L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Enchanted Objects, 1925), which provided orchestration lessons for his own, subsequent works on the theme of youth.