11 Whereas, for example, Prokofiev lauds Petrushka (1911) at various points in the diary, he trivialized it in a June 24, 1913 letter to his closest friend Nikolai Miaskovsky, intimating that the music was a pastiche of quotations from motley French and Russian sources (S. S. Prokof’ev i N. Ia. Miaskovsky. Perepiska [S. S. Prokofiev and N. Ia. Miaskovsky: Correspondence] ed. D. B. Kabalevskii [Moscow: Izdatel’stvo “Sovetskii Kompozitor”, 1977], 107).
12 For the opera’s history, see Simon Morrison, Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 242-307; for additional information and correctives, see John Elsworth, “Prokofiev and Briusov: The Libretto of The Fiery Angel,” Slavonica 10:1 (April 2004): 3-16.
13 The ballet’s history is traced by Lesley-Anne Sayers (“Re-Discovering Diaghilev’s Pas d’Acier,” Dance Research 18:2 [Winter 2000]: 163-85); the diary, however, offers hitherto unknown details about the ballet’s origins (II: 330-32, 338-49).
14 W. M., “Factory Life Ballet: Music and Machinery,” The Daily Mail, July 6, 1927, p. 9.
15 The acronym for Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which introduced free market activity to the Soviet Union, but which was abandoned after Lenin’s death in January 1924.
16 The relationship between the music and dance in Le Pas d’acier was far simpler than it was intended to be. In an August 1925 letter to Diaghilev, Iakulov described the relationship as organic in nature, with the dance developing, rather than just visualizing, the music (Viktor Varuntz, “Novye materialy iz zarubezhnykh arkhivov” [“New materials in foreign archives”], Muzykal’naia Akademiia [Musical Academy] 2 : 196-97).
17 The aforementioned Ala et Lolly and The Tale of the Buffoon who Out-Buffooned Seven Other Buffoons (1915). The diary furnishes the chronology of another, little-known ballet, one that Prokofiev created for the choreographer Boris Romanov. Entitled Trapèze, it is written for clarinet, oboe, violin, viola and double bass. Prokofiev did not publish the score as a ballet; instead, he published the six movements he composed in 1924 as a previously planned quintet, and reworked the two movements he composed in 1925 for an orchestral divertimento. Noëlle Mann, the curator of the Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths College, University of London, reassembled Trapèze for English National Ballet performances in April 2003. Her edition can be rented from Boosey & Hawkes.
18 D. Gachov, “O ‘Stal’nom skoke’ i direktorskom naskoke” [“On The Steel Step and a directorial run-in”] quoted in Sergei Prokof’ev 1891-1991: Dnevnik, pis’ma, besedy, vospominaniia [Sergei Prokofiev 1891-1991: Diary, letters, conversations, reminiscences], ed. M. E. Tarakanov (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo “Sovetskii kompozitor,” 1991), 201.
19 Sviatoslav Prokofiev ascribes the decision to homesickness, but notes that “doubts” about the wisdom of the move “tormented” the composer (I: 11).
20 The letter in question is signed by Nadezhda Briusova, a member of the Soviet State Academic Council, on behalf of Anatolii Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Education. A carbon copy inscribed “circa 1925” is preserved at RGALI, collection 2009, catalog 2, item 4. The letter purports to be a response to an inquiry made by Prokofiev to Lunacharsky, and concludes with the sentence “I’m confident that the entire musical world of our Union will sincerely welcome your return.” The RGALI catalog states, however, that copies of the letter were mailed to the pianist Alexander Borovsky, an acquaintance of Prokofiev’s, and to Stravinsky.
21 Prokofiev made this remark after meeting with composition students at the Moscow Conservatory. From October 27, 1933 to December 1, 1937, Prokofiev held an adjunct teaching position at the school. See D. R. Rogal’-Levitskiy, “‘Mimoletnye sviazi’ (K 70-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia Sergeia Prokof’eva)” [“‘Fleeting contacts’ (For the 70th anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev’s birth)”], in Sergei Prokof’ev. K 110-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia. Pis’ma, vospominaniia, stat’i [For the 110th anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev’s birth: Letters, reminiscences, articles] ed. M. P. Rakhmanova (Moscow: M. I. Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture, 2001), 162 and 165.
22 Quoted in David Nice, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 320-21. The article in question is dated November 16, 1934.
The other composer in Prokofiev’s orbit during his period in Paris was, of course, Stravinsky, whom he perceived as a rival and a mentor. Their relationship was much closer than Prokofiev’s published correspondence to his friends back home indicates. During their time together in Paris, the two composers shared news, played through scores together at the piano, and offered each other creative advice. “On Stravinsky’s suggestion,” Prokofiev wrote about his Second Piano Concerto, “I divided the cadenza of the first movement into two parts, each interrupted by the french horns, and it seems to have turned out well” (I: 558). (On the same page of the diary, he notes that he later reversed this change.) The disputes between Prokofiev and Stravinsky centered less on issues of technique than aesthetics, with the older composer chiding the younger for his conservatism. Following the dress rehearsal for Le Fils prodigue, Prokofiev complained to Stravinsky about the radicalism of the staging, which, he felt, cheapened the attractive metaphorical qualities of the source biblical parable. Stravinsky coolly asserted that he should henceforth steer clear of the Bible when searching for dramatic subjects (I: 704). Paranoid about falling off the cutting edge, Prokofiev reminded himself that he was nine years younger, and thus nine years more modern, than Stravinsky.
This latter exchange dates from the end of the 1920s, a decade in which Prokofiev shuttled restlessly back and forth between the United States and Western Europe. The cluttered, impulsive narratives of this and other periods offer little space for introspection, though they are not devoid of emotional and psychological revelations. The unexpected suicide in May 1913 of an intimate adolescent friend, the pianist Maximilian Schmidthoff, left him feeling lost and confused (I: 280-81). The withering of his first mature romance, a hitherto unknown affair with the American actress Stella Adler between February 1919 and April 1920 (II: 23-93), dovetails with his blossoming infatuation with the Spanish-born soprano Lina Codina, whom he married in 1923. Prokofiev does not document the ceremony. If we assume that the diary is unexpurgated, the account of his mother’s death on December 13, 1924 consists of a single comment under the heading for December 12 (II: 294). There are no entries for the following two weeks. Thereafter, the intimate details that catch the eye most often concern religion. Prokofiev turns out to have been a surprisingly religious individual. The surprise lies in the choice of his faith: Prokofiev was neither an adherent of Orthodoxy nor Catholicism nor even Protestantism, but of Christian Science.
Encouraged by Lina, Prokofiev became acquainted with Christian Science in the summer of 1924, after finishing the original version of The Fiery Angel, a supernatural, mock-Symbolist opera that he would later deem heretical to his new faith. His indoctrination first involved reading Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875); through it, he and Lina began to treat their ailments – migraines, fatigue, eyestrain – through meditation (II: 267, 292-93, 394). The couple subscribed to the principle that sickness was an illusion that stemmed from a loss of harmony with the godhead. Prokofiev admitted, however, that their attempts at self-healing bore mixed results. Further study informed him that Christian Science and Kantian metaphysics had points in common, since “both interpret the world around us as merely a representation” (II: 275). Entries from early 1926 find him contemplating the difference between self-love and love for others. He also affirms the inevitable triumph of good, an “infinite” force, over evil, a “finite” one:
Christian Science regards evil as unreal, for evil is a temporal entity; in eternity, where time does not exist, all that is temporal is unreal. The world instant is unrelated to eternity. Till when will evil last? Until individualities are strengthened to the extent that their mutual attractions no longer lead to fusion and annulment. Hence: a person’s acceptance of good and rejection of evil is symptomatic of the maturation of his individuality (II: 377).
Later in the diary, Prokofiev incorporates direct quotations from Science and Health into his prose, and resolves to attend Christian Science services – even though the music performed at them grated on his nerves – and to live in accord with their teachings (II: 450, 577, 782-83). His faith explains the stress on moral absolutes in his text-based works, and his preference for characters who believe in spiritual and non-spiritual causes over those who doubt.
Thus, in 1927, Prokofiev dismissed his adolescent fascination with the cabalistic, a fascination manifest in his cantata Seven, They are Seven (1917), whose libretto concerns the spirits that afflict mankind, and in the aforementioned Fiery Angel, an opera that he did not see staged, and that represented the greatest disappointment of his career. In the midst of a 1926 overhaul of the ostinato-driven score, one that absorbed changes proposed by the philologist Boris Demchinsky, Prokofiev confessed: “With Christian Science I have become entirely detached from this storyline, and hysteria and devilry no longer attract me” (II: 425). Two months afterward, he reached a creative impasse, musing that he either had to abandon religion or abandon the opera that subverted it: “Conclusion? Toss The Fiery Angel into the stove” (II: 439). Mercifully, Lina advised him against rash decisions. Staking hopes for a production on Bruno Walter, the director of the Berlin Städtische Oper, he turned warily back to the now sacrilegious score, but the “nightmarish” (II: 581) process of reshaping the scenario, translating the text, and orchestrating the music extended past the contractual deadline. Walter, under pressure to reduce the foreign content of his repertoire, used the delay as an excuse to cancel the staging, and then accused Prokofiev of failing to support him in his battle against dilettante nationalism. Upon hearing about the cancellation from his agent, Prokofiev “became distressed, even bitter, but Christian Science soon calmed me down and dispelled my ire” (II: 596). His suspicion that The Fiery Angel was somehow cursed increased in 1930, when Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, balked at producing it (II: 764).
Owing to its lengthy gestation, Prokofiev’s work on The Fiery Angel overlapped with his labor on several other scores, the most significant being the ballet Le Pas d’acier (The Steel Step), in which the depiction of a Soviet factory irritated Soviet officials. The entries in the diary between 1925 and 1929, in short, juxtapose religion and politics, subjects that the composer suppressed from his correspondence and autobiographies, but that influenced his creativity nonetheless. The influence was by no means explicit. In Prokofiev’s stage works, one finds religion and politics symbolized as passion and destiny, forces that confront one another in cacophonous contests. Both in The Fiery Angel and Le Pas d’acier, contemporary works of dichotomous themes, machine rhythms underscore lyrical melodies, heavy treads accompany graceful flights.
Divided into two short acts, the original 1925 scenario of Le Pas d’acier concerns the transformation of pre-Revolutionary, Tsarist Russia into the post-Revolutionary Soviet state. The act-I romance between a sailor and a worker girl is paralleled by the act-II romance between man and machine. The two lovers, who lose contact during the Revolution, are reunited after the Revolution on a factory floor. The ballet was scheduled for production by the Ballets Russes in 1926, but Diaghilev decided that the scenario needed to be reworked, thus postponing the production for an entire year. To Prokofiev’s chagrin, Diaghilev trimmed the roles of the hero and heroine, inserted figures from Russian folklore into act I, and transformed the Soviet industrial utopia of act II into its antithesis: a slave galley. Following the London première, the dance critic for The Daily Mail observed: “Men and women in all stages of hurry and perturbation toiled and moiled, shifted heavy weights about, rained steam-hammer blows on huge bars of imaginary steel, tried to look like pistons, connecting rods, cams and differentials, grew hot, and never, never smiled.”
Fearful of burning bridges back home, where his music was more popular than that of Stravinsky, Prokofiev had worried from the start about the Russian reception of Le Pas d’acier. To compose a “Bolshevik ballet,” he was advised by his contacts, was to play with fire. Such a project would need to be politically neutral, which, Prokofiev recognized, was “unfeasible, because modern Russia is essentially defined by a struggle of red against white; neutrality does not define the historical moment” (II: 338-39). The visual artist Georgii Iakulov, Prokofiev’s collaborator on the ballet, convinced him otherwise, devising a Constructivist spectacle with three spheres of action: a grubby peasant market, a buffoonish NEP enterprise, and a sweaty factory and collective farm. To Prokofiev’s delight, Iakulov titled the nascent ballet “Ursign’ol,” whose first three letters came from URSS, the French abbreviation of USSR, and whose remaining letters suggested a “caricature” of Stravinsky’s opera Le Rossignol (II: 347). “Ursign’ol” was renamed Le Pas d’acier at the suggestion of Leonid Massine, the choreographer. After the dress rehearsal, Prokofiev observed that, “in places, the choreography was expressive and forceful, but in other places, it was annoying and disrespectful of the music” (II: 566). Much of the choreography consisted of standard four- and eight-beat units, but the music tends to avoid them.
Recent biographers have argued that Prokofiev simplified his musical syntax before his immigration to Soviet Russia, and that the decision was not informed by ideological considerations. The diary backs the first notion, but not the second. Prokofiev decided that Le Pas d’acier, which he and Iakulov hoped to stage in the Soviet Union, would be “diatonic and melodic” (II: 349), avoiding the chromatic transgressions of his previous ballets. Despite the staunch backing of Boris Guzman, the assistant director of the Bolshoy Theater, plans to mount the ballet in Moscow went unrealized. Following a 1929 run-through of the score before theater officials, Prokofiev found himself having to defend what Diaghilev and Massine had wrought. Most of the questioning centered on the visual inaccuracy and musical “illiteracy” of the factory scenes (II: 733). His diary offers less detail about the questioning than does the stenographic record published in 1991. In the latter source, we learn that Prokofiev was asked whether or not he believed that Le Pas d’acier depicts “a capitalist factory, where the worker is slave, or a Soviet factory, where the worker is master.” His response: “This [question] concerns politics, not music, and thus I refuse to answer it.”
Prokofiev’s efforts to secure a pro-Soviet, rather than anti-Soviet, staging of Le Pas d’acier less suggests that music is non-political than that it can change political stripes. The remark above, however, is one of several in the diary where the composer describes his music in idealized, mystical terms. Conversing with his literary alter-ego in November 1918, he decided that his music, all of his music, was “beyond time and space” (I: 751). He perhaps changed his mind on this point later in his life, when, to curry favor with Stalinist cultural taskmasters, he wrote the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of October (1937), and the Toast to Stalin (1939). However cynical their devising, and however bemused their reception, these scores are cemented to time and place like few others in the twentieth-century repertoire.
Excluding the account of his three-month stay in the Soviet Union between January and March 1927 – the section of the diary that has been translated – the composer’s initial flirtations with his transformed homeland, and his initial ruminations about adapting his art to new conditions, are not described in detail. Homesickness, the death of his mentor Diaghilev in 1929, endless problems getting his operas staged, the dissolution of the anti-modernist Russian Association of Proletariat Musicians in 1932, and seductive promises of amenable working conditions have all been cited as explanations for his gradual move to Moscow. On the heels of the fiasco of The Fiery Angel, he became disenchanted with his international career, and disgruntled that, unlike Stravinsky, he was stereotyped in Paris, London, and New York as a “Bolshevik” composer. In the summer of 1925, he received a written guarantee of hassle-free travel from the Soviet government, and began to consider mounting a Soviet concert tour. Perhaps in preparation, he read Leonid Leonov’s novel Badgers (Barsuki, 1925), a colorful panorama of rural and urban life during the NEP period. Following his successful 1927 visit, he began to weigh the financial and logistical pros and cons of part-time residence in Moscow. In early March, 1929, the soprano Siranush Kubatskaya amused him with the anecdote that Stalin heard one of his Moscow recitals and, “not without pride,” referred to him as “‘our Prokofiev’.” His reaction: “Excellent! Now I can travel to Moscow in peace!” (II: 680). In June, a Soviet attaché in Paris advised him to “build an apartment in Moscow” and, to simplify his financial dealings, enter into a business relationship with Muzgiz, the Soviet State Music Publisher (II: 714). Both ideas appealed to him, though his international commitments prevented him from acting on them at the time.
By 1933, however, he was tired of travel, tired of concertizing, and tired of competing with Stravinsky. Soviet Russia offered his family prosperity, and another musical frontier to conquer. “Now is the time,” he declared in the spring of that year, to write “mass” proletarian music. “My previous, melodic works and my search for ‘new simplicity’ have prepared me well for this task” (II: 829). There ensued an article for the newspaper Izvestiia, in which he spoke about Soviet Russia’s “need for great music” but also the “danger of becoming provincial.” Though Prokofiev was anything but provincial, he posed as such in his six “mass” songs of 1935. In early 1936, Shostakovich was humiliated in a pair of unsigned editorials in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, an awful event that nonetheless seemed to leave the path clear for Prokofiev to become the leading Soviet composer.
Knowing what came after in Prokofiev’s career, knowing that the Soviet regime would – among much more hideous crimes – shatter his creative spirit, one of the final diary entries, a May 1933 anecdote about a Moscow concert, gives pause: “Near the end of the entr’acte, [Lina] glanced at the loge and met eyes with Stalin, who had just then entered. His gaze was so intense that she immediately turned away” (II: 834). Prokofiev’s inner certainty would prove no match for the tragic certainty of that malevolent stare. At the moment, though, the future looked bright; it was a wonderful time to be alive.
BACK BACK TO SUMMARY