Reproduced here is a previously unknown draft of a brief autobiography, a two-page document written by the composer using his characteristic shorthand. The autograph manuscript is preserved in Prokofiev family archive in Paris. Dating from 1938-1939, a critical juncture in the composer’s life after his repatriation to Soviet Russia, it is a highly revealing document, not least because it tells us—at a point more than two years after Prokofiev had established permanent residency in Moscow—what he deemed to be the essential accomplishments of his career, those necessary and appropriate for submission with a bureaucratic Soviet form.
This draft of an autobiography also poses considerable interest because it is multi-layered. Originally penned in blue ink for attachment to a questionnaire from the Committee on Arts Affairs and dated 26 October 1938, Prokofiev returned to it on 14 December 1939, updating it with insertions and corrections in red pencil. Within both of these layers, many of the first thoughts he discarded are clearly legible beneath the deletions and erasures. The inscriptions affixing the two dates of the document, incidentally, are both written in black pencil, which is also found elsewhere in the document, suggesting that the composer reviewed this autobiography on at least one more occasion.
No transcribed or typed copies of the autobiography have come to light so far, nor has the original questionnaire for which it was destined as an attachment. That means we can only speculate about what purpose or purposes it was intended to serve. (It is possible that the 1939 revision was for a completely different purpose than the 1938 original.) Questionnaires and autobiographical sketches of this sort were an inescapable feature of Soviet life. They were required, inter alia, to procure education, employment, housing and permission to travel. Although it may be accidental, the dates on this particular document do suggest a possible connection with the necessity for Prokofiev to obtain official permission and an external passport for foreign travel.
Prokofiev never intended his American tour in the winter of 1938 to be his last trip abroad. He planned to travel the following season for performances in Paris and the United States. In February 1939, two and a half months after the first draft of this autobiography was dated, he wrote in a letter that his American engagements had been “postponed until next season.”1 Prokofiev was not alone in seeing his foreign travel curtailed. Until the autumn of 1939, prominent Soviet artists traveled abroad regularly as representatives of their country. In September 1939, the newspaper Sovetskoye iskusstvo announced the imminent departure of pianists Emil Gilels, Yakov Flier, Lev Oborin, violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Daniil Shafran and others—all recent laureates of international competitions—for a two-month concert tour of the United States.2 The first of them to arrive in the US would be Emil Gilels, but that would take place only sixteen years later, in 1955, two years after Prokofiev’s death. After the signing of the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany in August 1939, and especially after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Soviet “liberation” of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus and subsequent military incursions, the prospects for foreign tours by cultural professionals quickly evaporated, not to reappear until after the death of Stalin.3 This was a development neither Prokofiev nor his colleagues could have anticipated.
In this autobiographical sketch, Prokofiev appears to be aiming to strike a strategic balance between his achievements and prestige in the international arena—the productions of his stage works on three continents, the concert appearances in “all the major cities of Europe and North America,” the honorary memberships in distinguished societies, including one devoted to his own music—and his contributions to the “Soviet” cause, including his service on committees and as vice-chairman of the Moscow Union of Composers. Three times Prokofiev draws attention to works “on a Soviet theme”: the ballet The Steel Step and two cantatas in the 1938 draft, and the Katayev opera I am a Son of the Working People added in the 1939 update.
Incidentally, Prokofiev seems to have wavered in calculating the number of cantatas he had composed. The word “two” in the 1938 draft was crossed out in red pencil in 1939 with the word “three” inserted above, then the pencil marks were erased, restoring the original number “two.” In the year between the initial and revised drafts of this autobiography, Prokofiev had produced two cantatas, the hugely successful one drawn from his score for the film Alexander Nevsky (not, or not explicitly at least, on a Soviet theme), and his tribute for Stalin’s 60th birthday, Zdravitsa. Perhaps, after identifying Zdravitsa by name in his final paragraph, Prokofiev had second thoughts about changing the earlier number. Or perhaps he realized after the fact that, by the end of 1938, he had actually composed only one cantata “on a Soviet theme,” the ill-fated Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of October.4
What he was not counting as a “cantata” in 1938 was the suite, Songs of Our Days. Together with the six mass songs published under op. 66, he counted the eight songs of his op. 76 among the fourteen “Soviet songs” he had produced. As he indicated by means of the asterisk, three of these fourteen had been awarded first or second prizes in competitions sponsored by the Union of Composers and the newspaper Pravda. By late 1939, when he increased the number of his Soviet songs to twenty-three, he had won an additional song contest.
Only one of these prize-winning efforts has been documented in the literature on Prokofiev. That was his receipt of one of four second prizes—no first prize was awarded—for “Anyutka” (op. 66, no. 2) in the high-profile 1935 contest for the “best Soviet song” sponsored by the Union of Soviet Composers, the Union of Soviet Writers and Pravda. (Another of his songs, “The Country is Growing,” op. 66 no. 3, was accorded honorable mention in the contest.)
That his engagement with competitive song-writing was not coincidental was underscored when he took home both the top prizes in the 1938 competition of the Moscow Union of Soviet Composers for the best solo vocal work in honor of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution: first prize for “Brother for Brother,” op. 76, no. 4, and second prize for “Lullaby,” op. 76, no. 7.5 When, in 1939, Light Industry—the press organ of the People’s Commissariat of Light Industry—announced a contest for the “best song about textile workers,” Prokofiev was solicited to submit an entry. He garnered first prize with “The Stakhanovite” [Stakhanovka], op. 79, no. 2.6
None of these songs took root in the popular consciousness. But for a composer whose position in Soviet society still felt precarious, and who was encountering so many obstacles trying to shepherd his larger and more important creative projects to fruition, his success in socialist competitions provided some measure of public validation. In addition to bragging rights, incidentally, these four awards also came with the not inconsiderable sum of 9,500 rubles in prize money.
For all the precision with which Prokofiev tabulates his prizes, he makes a few mistakes in this draft autobiography. He lists Buenos Aires as one of the cities where the ballet Tale of the Buffoon had been performed. As we learn from his diary entry of 3 September 1927, the music of the Buffoon suite had been sent erroneously to Bronislava Nijinska in Buenos Aires instead of the music of the Scythian Suite, raising concern about whether the correct music would arrive in time.7 It did. It was Nijinska’s ballet Ala and Lolli—not Tale of the Buffoon—that opened at the Teatro Colón in October 1927.
Prokofiev’s classification of Egyptian Nights as a play by Shakespeare is partially inaccurate. He knew the production also included text by George Bernard Shaw and Pushkin. Initially, he wrote “music for the dramatic productions Hamlet and Egyptian Nights,” but then he lined out “dramatic productions” and substituted “Shakespeare plays” instead. That he didn’t catch his small oversight when he revised the text in 1939 perhaps indicates he wasn’t paying close attention.
Undoubtedly, the most poignant revelation in this document is Prokofiev’s explanation for why he spent so many years in the West, culminating with the rueful admission of his “insufficient appreciation” of the developments that had taken place in the USSR. Notwithstanding the detailed tally of his accomplishments as a “Soviet” composer, that he felt he needed to make excuses for his long absence from his homeland reveals how insecure he still felt in the new political environment.
1 Simon Morrison, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 113. For details about Prokofiev’s final American tours, including the “ghost” tours of 1939-1941, see Elizabeth Bergman, “Prokofiev on the Los Angeles Limited,” Sergei Prokofiev and His World, ed. Simon Morrison (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 423-51.
2 “Pered poyezdkoy v SShA,” Sovetskoe iskusstvo, September 4, 1939, 4.
3 After the Soviet Union participated actively during the first season of the New York World’s Fair in 1939, in November of that year officials took the decision not to participate in the second season in 1940, and the Soviet pavilion was dismantled and shipped home. See Anthony Swift, “The Soviet World of Tomorrow at the New York World’s Fair, 1939,” Russian Review 57 (July 1998), 378-9. As early as September 1939, the 220 performers of the Red Army Ensemble were turned back after they had already departed en route to their first tour of the United States, where tickets had been sold for 29 performances in 13 cities. See “Soviet Musicians On Way,” New York Times, August 30 1939; “Red Army Ensemble Arranges Itinerary,” New York Times, September 6, 1939; “Russians Cancel Tour,” New York Times, September 12, 1939.
4 Prokofiev did have another much earlier cantata, Seven They Are Seven, op. 30 (1918), though it was conspicuously not “on a Soviet theme.”
5 “V Moskovskom soyuze sovetskikh kompozitorov,” Sovetskaya muzïka, No. 8 (1938), 86.
6 “Pesni tekstil’shchikov,” Lyogkaya industriya, 4 June 1939, 4.
7 Sergey Prokof’yev, Dnevnik 1907-1933 (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), Vol. 2, 586.
Prokofiev’s 1938-1939 Autobiographical Statement
for the Committee on Arts Affairs
Translated and annotated by Laurel E. FAY