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Serge Prokofiev at Nikolina Gora, 1950

From earliest childhood, Prokofiev was an avid reader.
“I did not always know how to occupy myself,” he recalls in his Autobiography.
“Why are you going around, doing nothing?” my father asked.
“I’m bored.”
“Read something.”
My father taught me how to read and provided a supply of books.
References to familiar literature appear frequently in the Autobiography and Diary.

Lists of books read and compiled by the composer with Mira Mendelson are housed in the Prokofiev archive at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). Two lists are fair copies, and two rough drafts. The first fair copy, by the fourteen-year-old Prokofiev, is titled: “Books I read in the summer of 1905.” (3) It gives the title of each book, its author, the date of reading, and a grade (opposite almost every work). The dates indicate that the list was compiled from the autumn of 1905 through to the summer of the following year.
   The second fair copy, in Mira Mendelson’s handwriting, covers the years between 1941 and 1953.
(4) Columns detail the author, title, and the grade awarded to each along with the city in which Prokofiev read the book. There is also such other information as the name of the library and year of reading. Sometimes the composer did not record these last two entries, but individual comments appear in the columns, as for example: “The book was purchased by Prokofiev at the Committee on Arts Affairs” (5) or, sadly in 1953, “Didn’t finish reading.”
   It is impossible to date precisely when the list was compiled in the 1940s. Even the question as to whether it was written on a single occasion or at intervals remains open, although paper and ink are the same throughout. Mira Mendelson provides additional comments on works read in 1948. Her first entry falls on a single line next to Joseph Conrad’s novel Chance: “All my Sons, journal Zvezda (Star)”. The second entry is on a line next to Stefan Zweig’s play Magellan: “Article about [Charlie] Chaplin, journal Novyi mir (New World)”.
(6) On the one hand, it is unlikely that such details were remembered a year after reading (and it is no accident that these types of comments were made on separate lines). On the other, additional comments were probably made because titles were not entered immediately after reading, but later on — perhaps once a year, or once over the course of several years. In this instance one could surmise that the list of books read in 1948 was not entered before 1949.
   The composer took an active role in compiling the list. The content of the rough drafts made by Prokofiev
(7) and Mira Mendelson (8) is close to the 1940s fair copy, though there are titles in the rough draft that do not appear in the fair copy. For example, Valerii Briusov’s Ognennyi Angel (Fiery Angel) and Fedor Dostoevsky’s Igrok (Gambler) appear in Mira Mendelson’s rough draft. Might the references to these texts have been motivated by a desire to rework the operas based on them?
   Equally interesting is Prokofiev’s rough draft, which besides books also lists titles of a number of religious musical works. In the context of the composer’s literary enthusiasms, their inclusion arouses the intriguing possibility that these musical works are connected to the composer’s inner world, perhaps relating to his spirituality.
(9) Yet salient details suggest alternate reasons for the supplemental musical listing. Roman and Arabic numerals next to titles are often symbols Prokofiev used when working on music for films or stage plays. (10) The Arabic numerals obviously comprise a chronometer, indicating the timing to the second for each frame, which is crucially important for film music. Judging by its content, the list was in fact an aide-mémoire that the composer used while writing the music for Part 1 of Ivan Groznyi (Ivan the Terrible) (1942–45).
   As is well known, Prokofiev preferred to quote from his own works rather than those of others. When composing Ivan the Terrible, however, he had recourse to a number of liturgical works. In the preface to the film score, published in 1997 by Hans Sikorski and the Glinka Museum, Marina Rakhmanova notes all of the borrowings. The rough draft discovered at RGALI does not list all of the music used in the film, but it remains of interest as a conspectus. Rakhmanova writes that Prokofiev derived his “Mnogoletie” from various sources, and synthesised them so successfully that his version came to be used in religious services. Some of these sources, certainly Vasilii Titov’s and Alexander Kastalsky’s separate versions of the “Mnogoletie”, appear in the list, which also emphasises the extent of Prokofiev’s research: composers separated by two centuries are included — along with Alexander Fateev, a composer from the beginning of the twentieth century who wrote religious music but is barely mentioned in the historical literature. While working on Ivan the Terrible, Prokofiev showed great interest in liturgical music, as Rakhmanova observes with reference to an unpublished extract from Mira Mendelson. Mira recalls that at the beginning of the 1940s the composer frequently attended church services, occasionally sacrificing several hours of sleep (when the service was at night).
   This discovered page may throw light not only on the music for the celebrated film, but also on the chronology of the rough draft itself. There are, in truth, inconsistencies between the rough draft and fair copy of the book list. Work on the music for Part 1 of Ivan the Terrible was completed in 1944, but the majority of books listed in the rough draft and transferred to the fair copy were entered late in 1945. Which of these lists then has priority? It may well be the rough draft. There will be further reference to another inconsistency between the material of the fair copy and the aide-mémoire. Such red flags oblige one to approach the fair copy with caution.
   Prokofiev turned to a wide-ranging group of friends for books: the composer Nikolai Miaskovsky, the musicologist Pavel Lamm, the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, the musicologist Boris Asafiev, the singer Nina Dorliak, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, the theatre critic Nikolai Volkov, the pianist Anatolii Vedernikov, the composers Vissarion Shebalin, Dmitrii Kabalevsky, and Vano Muradeli, Prokofiev’s cousin-in-law Nadezhda Raevskaia, the music critic Vasilii Kukharsky, and the composer Dmitrii Tolstoy. He also made use of the libraries of different institutions: the Composers’ Union, the Authors’ Union, the Central Foundation for Workers in the Arts, and the Institute of Economic Statistics
(11) as well as public libraries and those of various sanatoria. It would be truly impossible to gather in one collection all that Prokofiev read.
   The authors and works found in the 1940s list are quite conservative: there are Russian and foreign classics from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries plus works of contemporary literature — the only exceptions being Goethe and Schiller.
   The broad range of literature is astonishing: the list comprises over 290 lines, with 119 Russian works and 63 foreign authors. Included are 53 Russian classics and 65 contemporary works, along with 21 classic and 42 contemporary foreign works. Clearly Prokofiev was anxious to acquaint himself with as many modern writers as possible. The composer literally surveyed new names, gauging which of them might become a “classic”. Yet even as he would often merely glance at modern writers, he proved a regular reader of the classics. One constant was the high esteem given to favourite authors (that is, any Soviet author whose work he read three or four times). The grades awarded by Prokofiev are also significant. Judging from the list, he was a critical reader: his most frequent mark was a 4 [equivalent to a “B” — Ed.].
   The Soviet writers who most interested the composer were Maxim Gorky and Emmanuil Kazakevich. He awarded a 5 [equivalent to an “A” — Ed.] to three of Gorky’s books: Vospominaniia (Memoirs), Zhizn’ Matveia Kozhemiakina (The Life of Matvei Kozhemiakin), and Foma Gordeev. There are three works each by Petr Pavlenko, Alexei Tolstoy, Ilia Ehrenburg, and Valentin Kataev, whose Beleet parus odinokii (Lone White Sail) receives a 5. Prokofiev could be extremely critical of contemporary authors. On 26 February 1950 he wrote to Mira Mendelson: “Yesterday I turned on the radio in a serene frame of mind, and heard a play by [Konstantin] Simonov about the plague and a professor (Chuzhaia ten’ [Another’s Shadow]). Generally, it wasn’t bad, and in any case, he was better than [Sergei] Mikhalkov. In ten years he’ll be writing quite decent plays.”
(12) Prokofiev gave Vera Panova’s story Sputniki (Companions) a 4, while Mira Mendelson was more impressed: “There is a freshness about this piece, I like the truth of the way the principal characters and their fate is portrayed. Serezha enjoyed listening to it.”(13)
   The interest in the contemporary was not fortuitous. During the 1940s the composer repeated his desire to write an opera on a contemporary theme. This resulted in several unrealised operatic plans, among them Rasskaz o prostoi veshchi (An Account of a Simple Affair, based on a story by Boris Lavrenev), Vas vyzyvaet Taimyr (Taimyr is Calling You, from the play by Alexander Galich and Konstantin Isaev), and Dalekie moria (Distant Seas, from the play by Vladimir Dykhovichnyi). Prokofiev’s last completed opera, Povest’ o nastoiashchem cheloveke (Story of a Real Man), is on a contemporary theme and appears in a new light based on these unrealised plans. Incidentally, Boris Polevoi’s source novel for the opera received a grade of 5.
   The leading writer among the Russian classics was... no, not Leo Tolstoy! Prokofiev refers to his works on five occasions, and three times gives him a 4. Dmitrii Merezhkovsky was also prominent: five of his works were read “at one go”. Prokofiev’s favourite nineteenth- and twentieth-century classics were Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev (8 and 12 entries respectively). Chekhov was given a 5 on three occasions, while Prokofiev mostly gave Turgenev a 4.
   As is widely known, Pushkin was one of Prokofiev’s favourite authors. Though few of his works appear in the composer’s list, he had clearly read all of Pushkin’s correspondence (the three volumes naturally receive a grade of 5). A copy of Eugene Onegin always lay on the composer’s work table.
(14) A brief extract from Mira Mendelson’s diary confirms the Pushkinist Prokofiev’s passion: “We have begun reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (Ottsy i Deti). When we reached the quotation from Pushkin, Prokofiev exclaimed: ‘What an amazing thing Eugene Onegin is!’ He recalled that when he was in hospital in 1945, having received permission to read from the doctor, he refused all of the books suggested by the librarian in order to wait for Eugene Onegin, which was being read by somebody else. When he finally laid hands on it, he would not be parted from it for a long time. It was one of Serezha’s favourite works, one to which he often returned.”(15)
   Further attesting to Prokofiev’s interest in a specific author are references to that author’s memoirs or related articles. Prokofiev’s list includes the memoirs of Turgenev, Mikhail Chekhov, Kornei Chukovsky (about Ilia Repin, Vladimir Maiakovsky, and Briusov), Dostoevsky, Anna Kern, and Afanasii Fet; Ivan Novikov’s book Pushkin na iuge (Pushkin in the South), Vse-volod Ivanov’s Vstrechi s Gor’kim (Meetings with Gorky), Ilia Zilbershtein’s Repin i Gor’kii (Repin and Gorky), and Repin i Turgenev (Repin and Turgenev)   . PART 2


1 This essay first appeared under the title “Prokof’ev-chitatel’” in Muzykal’naia akademiia, No. 4 (2008), 63-69; reproduced by permission of the author.

2 Prokof’ev, Sergei, “Avtobiografiia”, in S. I. Shlifshtein, ed., S. S. Prokof’ev. Materialy, dokumenty, vospominaniia (Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe Muzykal’noe Izdatel’stvo, 1961), 128.

3 RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, ed. khr. 307, ll. 6 ob.-7.

4 RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 390, ll. 1-14.

5 Prokofiev purchased two books at the Committee on Arts Affairs in 1947: Boris Gorbatov’s Nepokorennye (The Unruly Ones) and a collection of stories by Konstantin Paustovsky.

6 RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 390, l. 8.

7 RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 52.

8 RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 390, ll. 15-17 ob.

9 Prokofiev’s interest in religion has been studied in depth by the musicologist Natalia Savkina. In one of her publications on this subject the author comes to the following conclusion: “It is unlikely to become known anytime soon if Prokofiev’s passion for Christian Science was maintained to the same degree as before in the Soviet period or if it weakened when he was deprived not only of Church and community, but also, after his separation from [his first wife] Lina, the one person to share his faith in the USSR.” N. P. Savkina, “Khristianskaia nauka v zhizni S. S. Prokof’eva”, in E. G. Sorokin and I. A. Skvortsov, eds., Nauchnye chteniia pamiati A. I. Kandinskogo (Moskva: Moskovskaia gos. konservatoriia imeni P. I. Chaikovskogo, 2007), 256.

10 While working, for example, on the music to the unrealised production of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, Prokofiev used Roman numerals to designate separate episodes in the text. RGALI f. 1929, op. 2, ed. khr. 37.

11 The employer of the economist Abram Mendelson (1885-1968), Mira Mendelson’s father.

12 M. A. Mendel’son-Prokof’eva, “Vospominaniia o Sergee Sergeeviche Prokof’eve. Fragment: 1946-1950 gody”, in M. P. Rakhmanova, ed., Sergei Prokof’ev: K 50-letiiu so dnia smerti. Vospominaniia, pis’ma, stat’i (Moscow: Deka-VS, 2004), 176.

13 Ibid., p. 19. Entry of 15 March 1946.

14 Mendel’son-Prokof’eva, “O Sergee Sergeeviche Prokof’eve”, in Shlifshtein, Materialy, 378.

15 Mendel’son-Prokof’eva, “Vospominaniia”, 58-59. Entry of 19 June 1947.