Regarding my own case: some elements of formalism were characteristic of my music as early as fifteen to twenty years ago. I was probably infected through my contact with a number of Western trends. After Pravda (under the direction of the Central Committee) had exposed the formalist errors in Shostakovich’s opera, I pondered over the various creative devices in my own music and concluded that the path I had taken was wrong. In a number of the works that followed (Alexander Nevsky, Zdravitsa, Romeo and Juliet, the Fifth Symphony), I attempted to liberate myself from formalist elements, and I think I succeeded in this to some extent. The persistence of formalism in some of my works can probably be explained by a degree of complacency on my part, and a failure to understand that our people have no need for such things. After the Resolution, which has had a rousing effect on the entire community of composers, it has become clear exactly what kind of music our people need; and now it is also clear how we can overcome the formalist disease.
I have never doubted the importance of melody. I am very fond of it: I consider melody the most important element of music, and for years I have always been trying to improve the quality of melody in my works. I was not content that my melodies were merely original; at the same time, I wanted them to be immediately comprehensible to the most inexperienced listener – this is the most difficult thing for any composer. A multitude of dangers awaits him: it is easy to lapse into triviality or vulgarity or to rehash something that already exists. In this respect, it is easier to write more complex melodies. However, it often happens that a composer prods at his melody over a long period, and, having made his corrections, notices that he has now made it too recherché or overcomplicated, and simplicity is left behind. I, too, have undoubtedly walked into this trap in the course of my work. We have to exercise special vigilance when we compose, so that we can keep our melodies simple without letting them become cheap, sweet, or imitative. This is easy to say, but hard to realise; however, in my future works, every effort will be directed towards turning the words of this recipe into reality.
I am also guilty of atonalism, which is closely connected to formalism; nevertheless, I can gladly confess that I have long been attracted to tonal music; I can trace this back to the moment when I came to understand that a musical work constructed within a key is a work built on a solid foundation, while a work outside any key is built on sand. Additionally, tonal music affords many more possibilities than atonal or chromatic music – this much is clear from the fact that Schoenberg and his followers found themselves in a dead-end. In some of my recent compositions there are individual atonal moments. I still used this device, albeit with little enthusiasm, largely to provide contrast, to throw the tonal passages into relief. In the future, I will seek to eliminate this device altogether.
In opera, I have often been reproached for allowing a preponderance of recitative over cantilena. I am very fond of the stage, and I think that all who come to the opera house have every right to expect stimulation not only for the ear, but also for the eye (otherwise they might as well have gone to a concert). But all kinds of stage action find a musical correlate in recitative, whereas cantilena brings the action more or less to a halt. I well recall, in some of Wagner’s operas, what a torment it was for me to watch the stage over the course of an hour-long act when not a single character moved. It was this fear of stasis that has prevented me from dwelling on cantilena for longer stretches. With the Resolution in mind, I have carefully reconsidered the issue and I have now come to the conclusion that in every opera libretto, some passages demand recitative, while others demand arioso, but over at least half of the opera, there are passages that the composer may present in either manner. Take, for example, Tatiana’s letter scene in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin: it would have been a relatively simple matter to write most of this as recitative, but Tchaikovsky decided to direct his music towards cantilena instead, transforming the entire letter into a huge aria; at the same time, the scene was able to benefit from some action on stage, thus providing food for the eye as well as the ear. This is the direction I want to take in my new opera, which is based on a contemporary Soviet plot, Story of a Real Man, by Boris Polevoi.
I am very pleased that the Resolution considers polyphony to be highly desirable, especially in choruses and ensembles. This is a most engaging task for any composer, and gives much pleasure to the listener. In the opera I have just mentioned, I intend to introduce duets, trios and contrapuntally developed choruses, and for this purpose I am using transcriptions of some Northern Russian folksongs. The other elements I wish to cultivate in the opera are clear melody and, as far as possible, simple harmonic language.
In conclusion, I would like to express my gratitude to our Party for the clear-cut directions contained in the Resolution; these directions are my guide as I seek out a musical language that would be close to the people and comprehensible to them, the kind of musical language our people and our great country deserve.
Reprinted with permission from Newly Translated Source Documents, programme booklet for the symposium “Music and Dictatorship: Russia Under Stalin”, Carnegie Hall, New York, 22 February 2003, in a translation by Jonathan Walker and Marina Frolova-Walker.
Editor’s Note: This document was published on pages 66-67 of the January-February 1948 issue of Sovetskaia muzyka, albeit without the reference to Zdravitsa. The Russian State Archive of Literature and Art houses a typescript of the document dated 16 February 1948, and an identical manuscript in the hand of Mira Mendelson with alterations in the hand of Prokofiev (RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, ed. Khr. 116, ll. 1-5).