Drawing by Oleg Prokofiev, 1947.
The conception for an opera, Distant Seas, after the play The Honeymoon by V. A. Dykhovichny, became the last of Prokofiev’s operatic ventures to be added to the list of his uncompleted works. Still, the materials for the incomplete opera—a piano score of the first scene (1), variants of the libretto (2), musical sketches (3), annotations to Dykhovichny’s play (4)—are extensive enough to enhance our understanding of Prokofiev’s musical theatre in the 1940s. As the sketches and drafts of the libretto corroborate, the first scene of the opera exhibits well-defined features that are characteristic of the conception as a whole. The music of this work is all the more interesting because its stylistic features find reflection in other works by Prokofiev of the late 1940s. Even with due regard for all manner of pointed criticism bearing on the composer’s works of that time, it is essential to recognise that the changes the composer introduced into his musical style were purposeful. Prokofiev was attempting to clearly formulate a new language for himself, one accessible to the broad public while at the same time of inte-rest to the professional musician.
The history of the creation of the opera Distant Seas unfolds in correspondence bet-ween Prokofiev and staff of the Committee on Arts Affairs and its departments. On 24 June 1948, the composer wrote to P. I. Lebedev, chairman of the Committee on Arts Affairs, with a request for a contract: “I would like to write an opera on a Soviet plot. Having surveyed a large number of plays and several film scenarios with this in mind, I have settled on Dykhovichny’s comedy, The Honeymoon. It seems to me that this play can serve as the basis for the creation of a lyrical and upbeat operatic spectacle about our youth. In discussing the plan of the libretto with my librettist, Mira Mendelson, we have set ourselves the following tasks by way of elaboration:
1. Strengthen the ideological aspect, show the sense of purpose, the ideological commitment of our youth.
2. Strengthen the lyrical line. We want to call the opera lyrico-comic, not simply a comedy.
3. Replace fragmented conversations with arias, songs, ensembles.
4. Depict the characters’ personalities as vividly as possible.
5. Change some of the scene settings to effect more varied décor.
6. Reduce the number of scenes from seven to six or five and find a different name for the opera.
If you look favourably on the topic and the preliminary plan, then I would ask that you issue instructions for contracts to be executed with me and with the librettist for the writing of this opera.” (5)
The reply to Prokofiev, dated 16 July 1948, was written by N. N. Goryainov, head of the Musical Theatre Directorate of the Committee on Arts Affairs. The main gist of the letter: “Before we can conclude a contract with you and the librettist, we need to familiarise ourselves with an expanded narrative and dramaturgical plan of the opera.” (6)
The letter in question proved decisive for launching work. Over the course of the next week, 21-28 July 1948, not only did Prokofiev prepare a plan of the libretto, but he also started to write the music of the opera, as evidenced by the date at the beginning of the piano score of the first scene (24 July (7). The composer’s reply of 29 July 1948 was as follows: “I am sending you the plan of the libretto. [...] On Wednesday-Thursday of next week I will come to Moscow to close the contract.” (8) However, as evidenced by a letter from N. N. Goryainov’s deputy dated 11 August, as of that date a contract still did not exist. The official promised: “By the end of the week the contracts will be ready.” (9) This document has not yet been found and what sort of difficulty arose with it is unknown.
During the summer months of 1948, Pro-kofiev prepared several variants of the libretto of the first two scenes and completed the music for scene one. In combination with the concurrent orchestration of the opera A Story of a Real Man, this was no mean feat. And yet, work did not proceed further than the first scene. Perhaps “fatigue” with the operatic genre, the overall poor health of the composer, and his workload motiva-ted the halt. Moreover, in 1948 the attitude to A Story was already more than wary. (10) Evidently, Prokofiev realised that until A Story received official approval—the dismal realities of the times necessitated precisely this—the “green light” for a new opera was unlikely.
On 6 March 1952 the new head of the Musical Theatre Directorate, Yu. Muromtsev, sent Prokofiev a letter reading as follows: “The Musical Theatre Directorate requests that you advise it of the status of your work on the writing of the libretto and music of the opera Distant Seas, which, according to the contract held by the Musical Theatre Directorate, was to have been completed in June 1951.” (11)
Prokofiev answered: “I began work on this opera in the summer of 1948. [...] I wrote libretto and music; I have part of the opera in rough drafts. At the same time I was writing the ballet “The Stone Flower.” [...] Illness interrupted work on both pieces. While I convalesced, I occupied myself with the orchestration of the ballet and finished it at the beginning of 1950. But I didn’t get the chance to return to the opera because I was carried away by work on the oratorio On Guard for Peace, and then by a new symphonic Poem dedicated to the construction of the Volga-Don Canal, which I finished not long ago. I am very interested in the task of writing a lyrico-comic opera. […] In this connection, I appeal to you with the request to extend the term of the contract for writing the libretto and music of the opera Distant Seas until the spring of 1953.” (12)
Yu. Muromtsev responded to Prokofiev’s request. On 27 March 1952, he wrote: “In connection with the question you raised about extending the term of the contract for writing the libretto and music of the opera Distant Seas, I ask you to come see me for a personal interview.” (13)
After that, however, the correspondence broke off for a short while. To all appearances, it was this fatal interruption that decided the outcome of the opera. On 2 July, Murom-tsev wrote: “On 27 March I sent you a letter asking you to come see me to resolve the question you had raised about the extension of your contract for the opera Distant Seas. Unfortunately, you neither called me nor responded to my letter. Meanwhile, […] the contract is no longer valid. […] In connection with this, you will need to obtain permission personally from N. N. Bespalov for a renewal of the contract.” (14)
Prokofiev sent the final two letters, nearly identical in wording, to Yu. Muromtsev on 8 July, and to N. Bespalov—who in 1952 headed the Committee on Arts Affairs—on 17 July. The text of the first of the letters is quoted: “Highly respected comrade Muromtsev, upon receipt of your letter dated 2 July, I realised that obviously a misunderstanding had taken place, and I want to explain the reasons by virtue of which I did[n’t] pay a visit or write to you before now. […] You asked me to go the Musical Theatre Directorate to resolve the issue. Unfortunately, I couldn’t possibly do so. […] Doctors prohibited me from going out and even from conducting business by telephone, and then insisted that I leave the city. In the meantime, I told D. B. Kabalevsky, when he visited me, about your letter and of my regret about my inability to fulfil your request at present. […] D. B. Kabalevsky said that he sees you often and would, without fail, convey my apologies and speak with you to the point. Later he assured my wife that he had passed everything on to you and that I should not worry. Consequently, I received the impression that there was no urgency in resolving this issue. […] I extend my apologies to you, highly respected comrade Muromtsev, and, as per your instructions, I am writing about this matter to N. N. Bespalov, with whom, unfortunately—due to the prohibition of my doctors—I cannot presently speak in person.” (15) In the preserved draft of his letter to Bespalov (16), Prokofiev deleted the segment concerning Kabalevsky; he preferred to resolve the “tiff” that had occurred on his own, without naming colleagues.
Most likely, the contract renewal thereby failed; the available materials for Distant Seas pertain specifically to 1948. Dates are indicated on three documents. A plan of the libretto, handwritten by M. A. Mendelson and authorised by S. S. Prokofiev, is dated August 1948.(17) (Based on the dates of the letters cited, the period of its writing can be pinpointed to early August.) The date of its beginning, 29 July 1948, and its ending, 31 August, is indicated in the piano score of the first scene.(18) The unfinished introduction to the opera is also marked 1948.(19) Other materials for the opera are not dated. Since they are associated exclusively with the first two scenes of the opera, it is most likely that they also date from 1948.
On acquaintance with the plan and sketches of the libretto of Distant Seas parallels with the operas of the 1940s spring to mind. As in the operas War and Peace and A Story of a Real Man, an important role was to have been played by a dance scene in which the fate of the protagonists was resolved. Rhythmic schemes can be found in the libretto of Distant Seas (next to the text of Andrei’s arioso “I know how to save Kostik,” for instance), as well as poetic markup (20) and sketches of musical rhythm (21), which figured earlier in drafts of the libretti of all of Prokofiev’s operas of the 1940s without exception. In conceiving the various romantically inclined couples, it is striking that, in effect, Prokofiev transfers the “Nocturne” scene from Semyon Kotko into the plan of Distant Seas. The composer highlights two lyrical duets, which were to have filled out the scene of waiting for the train. Unlike Semyon Kotko, the couples would have consisted of the two girlfriends, dreaming of their sweethearts, followed by the two male friends.(22) Another important feature of Prokofiev’s operas of the 1940s is embedded in the sketches of the libretto: the distinctiveness of the protagonists’ vocabulary. In his search for the individual language of the characters, the composer consulted specialised books and jotted down various terms (bathysphere, hydrostat), and the definition of the occupations of specialists studying the sea (biologist, hydrologist, planktologist).(23)
Furthermore, sixteen prospective musical fragments are mentioned over the course of the plan of Distant Seas; in six instances their song genre is indicated. In the sketches for the libretto (24) the song component is mentioned even more frequently than in the plan. Recall that in A Story of a Real Man there were also plot points whose song potential was clear to Prokofiev from the outset.(25)
Judging by the plan of the libretto, nevertheless, the overall conception of Distant Seas was markedly different from A Story. If attention there was focused on a lead character, then in Distant Seas it is well nigh impossible to single out a central figure. Even the solo fragments pinpointed by Prokofiev only underscore the predominance of dialogic scenes. Unlike the “monodrama” A Story of a Real Man, Distant Seas promised to be an opera of duets.
In the available music from Distant Seas (the first scene), the literary text and tempo markings are now and then lacking, as are the stage directions so characteristic of Prokofiev. Nonetheless, the most important thing—musical material that is intact—is present. The composer does not designate divisions between episodes of the action but, in accordance with the dramaturgical situations, four segments are clearly delineated within the scene.
The first segment (bars 1-15) reveals that Kostik is hiding something from his friends (a letter to the mysterious navigator Atamanenko—in reality, Olga, the wife Kostik has secretly married). The subject of the dialogue between Kostik and Zoya (bars 21-173) is a new secret, this one dealing with the expedition. (Zoya’s father, who has been appointed leader of the expedition unofficially, wants to make the acquaintance of the applicants for the team). Having misconstrued the behaviour of their friend, Andrei and Mark draw up their plan of love affairs with the purpose of getting their friend back on the expeditionary track (bars 223-527). In the final segment (bars 532-693), the first clash of interests between friends takes place in the argument between Andrei and Kostik about marriage. However, tension is quickly defused when Kostik tells a joke.
What takes place onstage is not exhausted by the actual business of the characters, which, in this instance, is relatively inconsiderable. M. G. Aranovsky’s idea about the crucial role that speech situation played for Prokofiev is an excellent one.(26) Due to the peculiarities of its plot, in A Story of a Real Man narratives and reflections turned out to be central. The speech situations in the first scene of Distant Seas include a letter, commentary to the letter, news, the display of enthusiasm, a warning, a secret compact, an introduction, an argument, etc. Even an incomplete list attests to the saturation of events of a psychological nature, each of which was also embodied in the music. Analysing the scene, it was possible to identify 21 musical fragments ranging from 4 to 99 bars. Some of these are relatively independent, while others are grouped into sections. Some signify only a brief emotional reaction to what is happening, others amount to large-scale solo sections within the dialogue. In essence, the compositional approach in the first scene of Distant Seas is analogous to that of A Story of a Real Man. There the numbered structure reflected the articulation of sections into their separate components. Here the principal of construction is the same, only without numbers being designated. NEXT
BACK TO SUMMARY
1 RGALI, f. 1929, op. 1, ed. khr. 29.
2 Ibid., op. 3, ed. khr. 16, 31.
3 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 30.
4 Ibid., op. 3, ed. khr. 251.
5 Text of a draft: RGALI, f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 135, l. 3.
6 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 819, l. 51.
7 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 29, l. 1.
8 Quoted from a draft: RGALI, f. 1929, op. 3, ed. khr. 116, l. 8.
9 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 819, l. 52.
10 A telling fact: after the summer negotiations of 1948, the Committee on Arts Affairs permitted only a preliminary concert performance of A Story of a Real Man.
11 RGALI, f. 1929, op. 1, ed. khr. 819, l. 54. Letter dated 11 March 1952.
12 Text of a draft: RGALI, f. 1929, op. 2, ed. khr. 327, l. 30.
13 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 819, l. 55.
14 Ibid., l. 56.
15 RGALI, f. 1929, op. 2, ed. khr. 151, l. 13.
16 Ibid., op. 3, ed. khr. 135, l. 5.
17 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 31, l. 1.
18 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 29.
19 Ibid., op. 1, ed. khr. 31, l. 1.
20 Ibid., op. 2, ed. khr. 31, s. 4-5.
21 Ibid., op. 3, ed. khr. 16, l. 36.
22 This parallel was first noted by L. V. Polyakova. See L. V. Polyakova, “Dalekiye morya: O poslednem opernom zamīsle S. Prokof’yeva,” Sovetskaya muzīka 3 (1963), 53-56.
23 RGALI, f. 1929, op. 2, ed. khr. 31.
24 Ibid., op. 3, ed. khr. 16, l. 28-28 ob.
25 See M. A. Mendel’son-Prokof’yeva, “Vospominaniya o Sergeye Prokof‘yeve. Fragment: 1946-1950 godī,” Sergei Prokof’yev: Vospominaniya, pis’ma, stat’i, ed. M. P. Rakhmanova (Moskva: Trudī GTsMMK im. M. I. Glinki, 2004), 67-68.
26 M. G. Aranovskiy, “O vzaimootnosheniyakh rechi i muzīki v operakh S. Prokof’yeva,” Keldīshevskiy sbornik: Muzkal’no-istoricheskiye chteniya pamyati Yu. V. Keldīsha, comp. S. G. Zvereva (Moskva: Gosudarstvennīy Institut Iskusstvoznaniya, 1999), 60-69.