Draft list of liturgical music to be included in Ivan the Terrible.
1948 reading list, in Mira Mendelson’s hand.
In her diary, Mira Mendelson writes the following: “Olechka Lamm brought us Sofia Andreevna Tolstaia’s diaries, which interested Serezha. This morning Serezha said: ‘I’d like to publish a book like this — writers living at the end of the second half of the nineteenth century like Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Fet, and how they related to one another. Living Writers along the lines of the collection Living Tolstoy.’ Then he added: ‘One could treat Pushkin, Zhukovsky, Gogol, and Lermontov in the same way.’”(16) From whatever angle one examines Prokofiev’s list, the reader has almost certainly realised by now that his preferred Russian authors remained consistent.
The clear favourite and all-round leader among foreign authors is William John Locke.(17) From the evidence of his own stories, everything that Prokofiev admired is found in the writings of this early twentieth-century novelist: delightful subjects, at times light-hearted, other times melodramatic; unexpected turns of fortune (either a humorous volte-face or sudden revelation of a family secret, depending on the genre); quirky characters (ranging from a gambler on the make to an aristocratic bacteriologist); and colourful settings (a small house by the sea, an automobile journey, a home in a wealthy area of London). Such light reading was extremely apposite in 1948: six of the eight novels Prokofiev read that year were long familiar. It may well be that Prokofiev was searching for an operatic subject; as noted, however, that choice fell on Soviet authors.
Other foreign writers who interested the composer were John Galsworthy and Theodore Dreiser. He also read three works each by the Goncourt Brothers, Émile Zola, George Sand, Romain Rolland, Thomas Mann, Upton Sinclair, and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Detective, adventure, and love stories occupy an important place in the Western authors Prokofiev read, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (a grade of 5), P. G. Wodehouse’s The Man Upstairs, Gaston Leroux’s The Bewitched Chair and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Mayne Reed’s The Headless Horseman, and Paul Fechter’s The Elevator Story. Prokofiev read the work by Reed in 1950 while in hospital at the suggestion of his doctor: “Professor Markov said ‘... choose children’s literature like The Headless Horseman.’”(18)
Ten of the thirteen authors in the list from 1905 are Russian. Turgenev features prominently, and Prokofiev again proves a rather harsh judge of his writing, even assigning him the occasional 3 [equivalent to a “C” — Ed.]. Gogol’s works also maintain an important position. The 1905 list confirms the composer’s antipathies. He wrote to his father: “I’ve read the first volume by [Alexander] Ostrovsky and I’m taking a break before reading the second. I didn’t like it at all: the subjects are boring and the language of the principal characters ugly; it’s all the same; let’s drink and eat, eat and drink.”(19) Of the four plays by Ostrovsky that he read, three received a grade of 3, and A Family Affair a 2 [equivalent to a “D” — Ed.]. Prokofiev read Ostrovsky again in the 1940s, this time without giving grades.
The scope of the 1940s list might be attributed to the appearance of several recurring themes, including Prokofiev’s aforementioned research into the lives of famous people. Prokofiev especially loved Repin: reminiscences about the artist and his family form a separate “list within the list”. Among musicians, Prokofiev was particularly interested in Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Chopin.
These interests could have evolved into a subject for operatic treatment. Such was the case with Pushkin. As Mira Mendelson wrote, “From the time of his childhood, Prokofiev had thought for many years of writing an opera on the subject of Pushkin. He was interested in Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Poslednie dni (The Last Days) and for a time planned to talk to the author, to explain his ideas and wishes, especially about the ending, and also about the Glinka/Pushkin theme, which he definitely wanted to turn into an opera.”(20) On another occasion, recalling incidents from 1942, Mira wrote:
- There was one operatic subject that he never forgot, and about which he continued to think for many years. He had long wished to write an opera about his favourite poet Pushkin. [...] Author Ivan Novikov spoke to him about this in the Philharmonic Hall in Tbilisi, where a Prokofiev concert was taking place that February. It appeared that the same subject also worried Eisenstein, who intended to make a film about Pushkin. While relating this, he rapidly sketched a complete dramatic episode — Pushkin on his way to the duel.(21)
Novikov’s interest in Pushkin took form as an entire series of novels; for Eisenstein it assumed the guise of numerous sketches for an unrealised film.(22) But Prokofiev’s opera on the same subject exists only in reminiscences.
Another common subject in the book list is travel, which remained an interest of Prokofiev’s throughout his life. Several titles confirm this: Vladimir Arsenev’s V debriakh Ussuriiskogo kraia (In the Jungles of the Ussuriskian Region) and Skvoz’ taigu (Through the Taiga), Nikolai Garin-Mikhailovsky’s Iz dnevnikov krugosvetnogo puteshestviia (From the Diaries of the Circumnavigation of the Globe, tracing travels in Korea, Manchuria, and the Laotian peninsula), Boris Gorbatov’s Nepokorennaia Arktika (Untamed Arctic, which earned a grade of 4), and Konstantin Badigin’s Tri zimovki vo l’dakh Arktiki (Three Winters in the Ice of the Arctic, written by the captain of the ice-breaker Georgii Sedoi after a twenty-seven month lie-to).
Travel also appears among the operatic subjects of the 1940s. Romantic longing for unexplored terrain saturates Dykhovichnyi’s play Svadebnoe puteshestvie (The Honeymoon), which became the basis of Prokofiev’s opera Distant Seas. This play and four other works are singled out in the list, marked with a decorative bracket, to the side of which is written: “Possibilities for a lyrical/dramatic opera”.(23)
The other highlighted works are the dramas Vas vyzyvaet Taimyr (Taimyr is Calling You) by Galich and Isaev, O druz’iakh-tovarishchakh (Of Comrade Friends) by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky, Zvezda ekrana (A Star of the Screen) by Alexander Raskin and Moris Slobodskoi, and Grigorii Alexandrov’s screenplay Vesna (Spring). Raskin, Slobodskoi, Mass, Chervinsky, and Dykhovichnyi were in fantastic demand during this period, and their work was well known to Soviet cinema-goers, especially for films like Operatsiia ‘y’ (Operation “Y”), Kavkazskaia plennitsa (Kidnapping Caucasian Style), Brilliantovaia ruka (The Diamond Arm), Sadko, and Vernye druz’ia (True Friends). In the 1940s and 1950s, they wrote a number of comedies, including the libretto for Shostakovich’s Moskva, Cheremushki (Moscow, Cheremushki). Their one collaborative work was the light comedy Gurii L’vovich Sinichkin, to which Slobodskoi, Mass, Chervinsky, and Dykhovichnyi all contributed.
That Prokofiev bracketed these plays on his list reveals an important trend, further manifest in his work on the opera A Story of a Real Man: here, the composer chose as his subject a highly approved work that, two years after its first publication, became a successful radio play, symphony, and film — all the while preserving its literary designation as a “story”. In his search for a new operatic subject, Prokofiev again turned to approved dramas that had been staged with success in 1946 and 1947.
He was motivated to compose a lyric/comic opera for obvious reasons. In 1948, after the publication of the Central Committee resolution condemning Muradeli’s opera Velikaia druzhba (The Great Friendship), practically all of the works by Prokofiev and the other composers singled out in the resolution ceased to be performed. It became clear in the summer of 1948 that the production of A Story of a Real Man would not proceed without problems. Given the situation, Prokofiev preferred to concern himself as much as possible with new works — in particular with the opera Distant Seas. On 24 June 1948 he wrote the following to Polikarp (Alexander) Lebedev, the Chairman of the Committee on Arts Affairs: “I would like to write an opera on a Soviet subject. Having considered with this aim a large number of plays and film scripts, I have settled on Dykhovichnyi’s comedy The Honeymoon. It seems to me that this play could serve as the basis of a lyrical and joyous opera about our young people.”(24) Leaving aside the rest of the letter, we might note that “a large number of plays and film scripts” is an exaggeration: Prokofiev only gives five titles in his personal list.
Yet those five titles were most likely just the tip of the iceberg, the mere “surface” of the list, for various reasons. Prokofiev carefully studied five dramas. The play A Star of the Screen and the screenplay for Spring have the same plot, which indicates that the subject was of genuine interest to him. We know the composer worked on the play Taimyr is Calling You because a synopsis for an opera on this subject exists.(25)
Another, indirect indication that Prokofiev might have considered a broader range of operatic subjects (beyond these five titles) comes from those in Prokofiev’s circle who brought literature to his attention. More than ten letters from librettists are preserved, (26) offering Prokofiev suggestions for operas or ballets based on Chekhov’s Chernyi monakh (Black Monk),(27) Konstantin Paustovsky’s story Kolkhida (Colchis),(28) and Mikhail Lermontov’s Geroi nashego vremeni (A Hero of Our Time).(29) In addition, librettists proposed subjects from the War of 1812,(30) Greek myth (Prometheus),(31) a compilation of Russian epics,(32) and even from English history (an opera about an uprising of weavers to be called “Bankobrosh”, after the “roving frame” textile machine).(33) In 1947 the conductor Boris Khaikin suggested Alexei Tolstoy’s Khozhdenie po mukam (The Path through Suffering),(34) and for two years the conductor Samuil Samosud tried to persuade Prokofiev to write an opera based either on Pushkin’s Metel’ (Snowstorm) or Bakhchisaraiskii fontan (The Fountain of Bakhchisarai). (35)
Prokofiev’s reading interests manifest themselves as potential operatic subjects. True, instead of Russian epics Prokofiev turned to Cossack stories (an unrealised opera Khan Buzai), and having rejected A Hero of Our Time he considered Nikolai Leskov’s Rastochitel’ (The Spendthrift). And rather than an uprising of English weavers, Prokofiev decided to dramatise a confrontation of Reds and Whites in a small sea-side town in An Account of a Simple Affair.
zIn sum, apart from his own widely recognised literary gifts, Prokofiev had exceptional panache as a reader. The range of literature he absorbed, as manifest in these lists, is enormous. It is even more amazing when we consider the diversity of Prokofiev’s operatic creations — especially the unrealised subjects (including those preserved only in other people’s reminiscences) that were initiated by his reading interests. The composer wittingly or unwittingly considered each and every literary subject as potential fodder for an operatic libretto. This is why it is so important to know what Prokofiev read. BACK
16 Ibid., 63. Entry of August 1947.
17 Locke (1863-1930) was a bestselling English writer of science fiction, romance, and adventure. More than 20 of his publications have been made into commercial films, including Ladies in Lavender in 2004, an adaptation of a 1916 short story. — Ed.
18 Mendel’son-Prokof’eva, “Vospominaniia”, 170. Entry of 21 February 1950.
19 Mendel’son-Prokof’eva, “O Sergee Sergeeviche Prokof’eve”, 389.
20 Ibid., 387.
21 Mendel’son-Prokof’eva, “Iz vospominanii”, Sovetskaia muzyka, No. 4 (1961), 103-104.
22 See RGALI f. 1923, op. 2, ed. khr. 207-211.
23 RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 135, l. 8.
24 RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 135, l. 3.
25 RGALI f. 1929, op. 2, ed. khr. 32.
26 See RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, ed. khr. 784.
27 Suggested to him in 1937.
28 Suggested to him in 1938.
29 Suggested to him in 1948.
30 Suggested to him in 1946 by one V. N. Kotovsky. Prokofiev was interested and requested a copy of the libretto.
31 Suggested to him in 1948.
32 Suggested to him in the summer of 1946.
33 Suggested to him in 1939.
34 Mendel’son-Prokof’eva, “Vospominaniia”, 60. Entry of 28 June 1947.
35 Ibid., 150. Entry of 26 May 1949.