In 1927 Prokofiev returned to Russia for the first time since the Revolution. In his diary during that hugely successful and stimulating visit, he mentioned that, on 27 January 1927 in Leningrad, he had met with the composer and ethnographer named Alexander Zataevich (1869-1936), who gave him an autographed copy of his elaborate 1925 collection of 1000 Kazakh folksongs. Six years later, in 1931, Zataevich published a follow-up collection of 500 Kazakh songs and kuys. Prokofiev also received an autographed copy of this volume.
On 5 August 1933, the composer wrote to Zataevich from Paris to the effect that the Musée dEthnographie du Trocadéro expressed interest in his research, and requested an additional copy of (presumably) the 1931 collection along with Zataevichs biography, a description of his method of collecting and transcribing folksongs, and some photographs of Kazakh instruments and performers, all to be donated to the Musée. Prokofiev was serving at the time as Paris representative of the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad, or VOKS, hence his advocacy of Zataevichs work.
On 5 November 1933, Zataevich sent Prokofiev the original manuscript of one of his transcriptions and Russian-language translations of the texts of six others. Presumably in that same year, Prokofiev arranged the songs-Alialu, Khanafiia, Kare kyz, Manmanger, Shama, and Eki kurai-for soprano and piano, taking care to imitate the sound of the Kazakh dombra, a two-instrument with a long neck, in the accompaniments.
The arrangements were not presumed to survive until Werner Linden began a painstaking search for them, based on an annotation in a Soviet-era publication about Prokofiev that claimed the existence of a work called Five Popular Songs of Kazakhstan. Dr Werner Lindens search is documented on the Prokofiev.org message board, and it involved several musicologists, most importantly Lera Nedlin of Almaty. Serge Prokofiev Jr., who was involved in the online discussion from the start, brought to light a copy of the manuscript that had been in the possession of his grandmother, Lina Prokofiev, at the Prokofiev family dacha in Nikolina gora. The manuscript is not in Prokofievs hand, but that of his Paris secretary Michel Astroff.
Last year, happily, Lera Nedlin arranged for a recording of the work to be made in Almaty at Radio Klassika, a station operated by the Kazakh National Conservatory. The recording is now available, and can be heard for a limited time here. Copies of the score can be obtained, by special order, from Boosey & Hawkes.
Prokofiev intended for his arrangements to be sung by his wife Lina. There is no record of her doing so, though she did perform other Zataevich transcriptions of popular Kirgizmelodies. They are listed on a program she sang on 13 April 1934 in Paris for Société Triton. She sang the Kirgiz melodies again in Moscow on 30 October 1935 for a broadcast on Soviet Radio (the station of the Communist International).
Much later, during the Second World War, Prokofiev began work on a comic opera on a Kazakh subject titled Khan Buzay. It was to have made extensive use of folk material from Zataevich. The composer produced a sizeable body of sketches and a libretto for Khan Buzay, but did not bring the opera anywhere close to completion.