Below: Prokofiev with Mira Mendelson

An interpretation of the composer's relationship with the Soviet regime

by Ian MacDonald

Part Three: The Protest Music

In an official symposium on the composer in 1954, Ilya Ehrenburg, encoding his meaning in the way customary under such circumstances, observed:
"Posterity will not be able to understand our difficult and glorious period of life without intently listening to the works of Sergei Prokofiev, and contemplating his extraordinary fate."
Had Ehrenburg said this about Shostakovich, few Western pundits (in recent years, at least) would have missed what he was getting at. Applying similar criteria to Prokofiev, however, is still quite a new idea.

Though much of his brisk arrogance was curbed by the adversity of his final years, Prokofiev remained fundamentally self-centred, interested chiefly in his own inner world. His capacity, or desire, to empathise with the lot of other people being limited, it is hardly surprising that, compared with Shostakovich, his work should be thinner on tragic subtexts. All too often brilliantly one-dimensional, a large part of Prokofiev's music is that of a clever, derisive child, achieving its best effects in the context of fairy-tale, romanticised history, or nostalgia for boyhood.

As with Ravel, whom he particularly admired, Prokofiev's engagement with the practical world of adulthood was reluctant (and often sarcastically ill-tempered). Unlike Ravel, however, it was his "extraordinary fate" to be forced to see far enough beyond his own predicament for his creativity to deepen in spite of itself. Whatever else it did to him, life in the USSR made him grow up.

While less interested in the moral predicaments of Soviet life than his rival Shostakovich, Prokofiev was far from a complete political naïf. On the contrary, he demonstrably knew what times he was living in and, when he felt impelled to, informed his music with this knowledge. How soon he saw the truth of the situation in Stalin's USSR is hard to assess, and, unless new evidence on this subject comes to light, all judgements on it must remain conjectural.

It is easy, for example, to make a case that by 1938 Prokofiev was aware of what was going on in Russia and reflecting this awareness in his music. Apart from musical testimony to this effect, there is the monumental fact of Stalin's Terror, which had by then grown so intense that even the most self-absorbed aesthete could hardly fail to notice it. It is similarly legitimate to suggest that the composer's Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution of 1936-7, far from being entirely earnest, is tongue-in-cheek and, in parts, actively satirical.

In other words, though novel in the context of current assumptions about Prokofiev, it is fair to deduce that he began to take a critical attitude to the Soviet regime after finally settling there in 1936 and perceiving what sort of a cauldron he had landed himself in. It is, however, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable to suggest that his music contains hints of such a critical outlook prior to his conclusive move back to Russia in May 1936. Why would he have made the move if he had already formed such an opinion?

Here speculation runs out of road. As things stand, we simply do not know, in the end, why Prokofiev chose to return to his homeland. Yet there is reason to think that by mid-1935 he had realised, if only on a creative level, that the USSR was in the hands of people fundamentally hostile to his artistic vision.

A secret scheme?

Though absent from the country during the Composers' Union conference on Soviet symphonism in February 1935, Prokofiev was informed of its gist by Myaskovsky. He knew that "absolute" symphonism had been vigorously attacked by many delegates and its opposite, the propaganda "song-symphony", advocated as the official ideal. He was likewise aware that, as a result of this, his enemies had seized the high ground, with all that this implied for composers like himself.

Probably he believed that he could appeal directly to the Soviet people via his scores, thereby placing himself safely above the argument. Indeed, in terms of strategy, his main work of 1935, Romeo and Juliet was almost certainly designed to outflank the apparatchiki by winning the hearts of concertgoers.

If so, it is tempting to hear its contemporary companion, the Second Violin Concerto, as a covert satirical reply to the anti-symphonic faction within the Composers' Union. Surely the childishly pedantic arpeggio accompaniment to the aria-like theme of the work's slow movement ("clumsily" scored for flute) is tongue in cheek? In which case, what can it be but an ironic response to simple-minded demands for a lyric-heroic "symphonism of the People"? If this is so, the shadowy bass drum which drives the soloist to jump through hoops in the finale requires no explanation.

Prokofiev here arguably anticipates Shostakovich's own Second Violin Concerto written thirty years later. (If this interpretation is valid, it shows him abreast of his contemporary in commenting musically on the prevailing situation in the Soviet arts in 1935. Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony may have begun as a similar riposte to the "song-symphonism" advanced at the Composer's Union conference.)

Music of the Terror

A less controversial interpretation may be attached to Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata, begun in December 1938 (and which, with ghastly irony, later received a Stalin Prize).

During the two years before the work was commenced, around seven million Russians had been sent to the Gulag and about half a million shot. There is no space here to say anything adequate in furtherance of these bald statistics. These people had done nothing wrong and were rounded up merely to fill quotas designed to ensure that everyone in Russia knew someone who had "disappeared".

Prokofiev got as far as drafting the sonata's outer movements (linked by desolate scale passages which, he told Oistrakh, should sound "like the wind in a graveyard"), before being summoned to score Alexander Nevsky. Thereafter, as if oppressed by its monochrome solemnity, he avoided the piece for seven years, finishing it during work on the similarly dark Sixth Symphony in 1946.

In context, the threnody of the first movement and pale, elegiac third speak for themselves. Elsewhere, the contrast of wanly tender measures with music of military brutality expresses the impact on Soviet life of Stalin's new-wave apparatchiki - thugs who despised intellectuals and were indifferent to culture. In classic style, the viciousness of these men was exceeded only by their stupidity. Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev satirised them with the musical image of a club-fingered amateur pianist spraying out wrong notes - a device employed in both the finale of his First Violin Sonata and the second movement of the Sixth Piano Sonata.

First of the so-called "War Sonatas", the Sixth has recently been recorded by the young Russian virtuoso Yevgeny Kissin, who scornfully dismisses the idea that the work had anything to do with the war*:

"The Sixth Sonata was written in 1939, before the war, so the experience Prokofiev portrays is that of the period of Stalinist repression, the 'cult of personality'. He truly captures this in the bitter, pompous opening theme of the first movement, a sort of 'Stalin leitmotif' which returns in the finale. The second movement is a parody of a military march, full of Prokofiev's veiled humour, sarcasm and mischief.

"The finale is truly a 'big sarcasm' and in the middle section Prokofiev recalls the 'Stalin leitmotif', giving it a completely different, ominous character to create a premonition of impending doom. And listen to what Prokofiev does at the very end of the coda: he crushes Stalin with the very weight of his own pompous leitmotif!"

Andrei Gavrilov, too, rejects the received idea that the "War Sonatas" had anything to do with the struggle against Hitler:
"If we consider the Seventh as a kind of 'monster-mould' for the all-embracing Stalinist system, then we must accept the Eighth as an even deeper and more personal reaction to this theme."
Gavrilov contends that in these works the composer was compelled by circumstance to explore new resources:
"Prokofiev's strong personality withstood the tragedy that surrounded him. Instead, he adopted a very critical attitude toward sentiment in general and expressed his views on life with irony, scepticism, and a great tendency towards sarcasm. In these two sonatas, however, Soviet reality weighed heavily upon Prokofiev and forced him (especially in the Eighth) to look at life in a more tragic light and to assume an active and personal role in the unfolding drama."
Gavrilov's fascinating "political" analysis of these works is too long and detailed to reproduce here** - but the point is made. Properly called "Terror Sonatas", they exude an acidulous atmosphere indicative of scalding emotion contained at high pressure, as if serving as repositories for feelings unsafe to express in more public form.

Sincerity or satire?

Prokofiev's revenge on his tormentors, when public, tended to take serpentine guises. For example, his Ode To The End Of The War - scored, for no apparent reason other than sheer bloodymindedness, for giant wind orchestra, four pianos, and eight harps - manages to be bombastic and trivial at the same time, being presumably a private joke at the apparat's expense. Indeed the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution - recorded complete for the first time by Neeme Järvi in 1992 for Chandos - is tolerable chiefly for its similar sarcasms, which, unsubtle as they are, may have contributed to its banning.

The libretto for the Cantata is, in effect, a veiled critique of the Revolution up to the time it was written, and if Prokofiev alone was responsible for it, any idea that he was a political ingenu will have to be discarded. The work is nonetheless a dreadful botch for which the only obvious explanation is that the composer had initially planned to pursue a more blatantly subversive line than circumstances allowed.

To be specific, the Cantata came into being just as the Terror was reaching its peak and it is inconceivable that even so self-sufficient an artist could have remained oblivious of events in the world outside Nikolina Gora at that time. Thus, the work starts in a vein of almost blatant irony before retrenching to a dry inscrutability secreted within some of the most absurdly grandiose pages ever perpetrated by a major composer.

Opening in apocalyptic mood with an orchestral commentary on Marx's menacing epigraph "A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism", Prokofiev moves into satirical overdrive with the overtly ridiculous "The Philosophers", in which an apparent attack on pre-Marxist thinkers carries undertones of derision directed against all "philosophers", including the 19th century anarcho-nihilists upon whose intolerant texts Lenin's violent revolution was founded.

With "A Tight Little Band", we reach Lenin himself - and here again the title is to the point, for it was precisely the paranoiac élitism of the Bolsheviks which precipitated Russia into totalitarianism and civil war.

Considered as a subject for a musical setting, the text itself is intrinsically funny - yet here, as for the rest of the work, Prokofiev risks no obvious ironies. In effect, everything is in the libretto, the text of "Revolution", for example, arguably selected to display Lenin's essential fascism. Only the music disappoints, being an unlistenable eruption of bombastic kitsch. (Material from the "Symphony" was recycled in the Ode To the End of the War.)

Clarity returns briefly with the ominous introduction to the finale on Stalin's "Constitution", but generally speaking the Cantata is a compromised failure whose neglect is justified.

Prokofiev's Requiem?

Notwithstanding his inability to solve the tricky aesthetic problems raised by the Cantata, Prokofiev's feelings about the political situation in Russia were clearly as strong in their cautious way as those of Shostakovich. Indeed, in the finale of his Second Quartet he foreshadowed some of the satirical devices his colleague subsequently employed in his own work (such as the use of the cello as a "Stalin" cipher, borrowed by Shostakovich for his Third Quartet).

Less resilient in the face of Socialist Realist bullying, however, Prokofiev rarely dared speak as directly as Shostakovich did in his Ninth and Tenth symphonies. (The dissident critic Andrei Olkhovsky's suggestion that the chorus "Arise, Ye Russian People" in the meretricious Alexander Nevsky had a contemporary application seems forced in the context of the music itself.)

Even so, the dissonant distant brass in the mad motoric coda of his Fifth Symphony are as obviously admonitory as the over-all structure of the finale of Shostakovich's Tenth. (For signposts towards a deeper understanding of the Stalinist background to the Fifth Symphony, consult David Fanning's notes to Seiji Ozawa's otherwise disappointing version on Deutsche Grammophon 435029-2.) Moreover, taken as a whole, Prokofiev's great, and much misunderstood, Sixth Symphony is as explicitly dissident as his colleague's outspoken Thirteenth.

Protecting himself with the ambiguous statement that the Sixth was an expression of "admiration for the human spirit, manifested so clearly in our era and in our country", the composer's real intentions were nevertheless plain. Taking a leaf out of his friend Myaskovsky's book, he used all his resources of nostalgia to draw a heartbreaking contrast between the worlds of the old and new Russia, the former portrayed with yearning tenderness, the latter as a calamity of callous indifference.

"Kindness," wrote the memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam, "is not an inborn quality - it has to be cultivated, and this only happens when it is in demand. For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned, vanished quality, its exponents as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our times - the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant 'unmasking' of people, the search for an ulterior motive behind every action - all this taught us to be anything you like but kind."

As a précis of Prokofiev's Sixth, Mme Mandelstam's words are perfect. The same nostalgia for gentleness is present in the composer's Seventh Symphony, but at lower tension (and with a falsely optimistic coda tacked on by order of his masters). The Sixth, however, meets the issues head-on and its superb finale - routinely dismissed as a misconceived anti-climax by underinformed Western critics - is one of music's most sophisticated tragedies.

Here, a bustling mood of deliberate superficiality - such as one might assume in order to blot out fear or grief - is undermined by an ugly, drumming bass figure which, in the coda, achieves a victory of black negation paralleled in Shostakovich only by his Fourth Symphony. As in the finale of Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata, this crude, blundering bass motif is almost certainly a musical representation of Stalin himself.


According to the Shostakovich of Testimony, Prokofiev had "the soul of a goose" and was "frightened out of his wits" by what happened to him after his return to the USSR. Since the alleged author of these remarks elsewhere confesses to having been himself suicidal with fear during 1936, this hardly seems fair.

There is, however, less evidence of panic in Shostakovich's output after 1938 than in that of Prokofiev, whose penchant for working on several pieces at once then degenerated into an undignified scramble to come up with something - anything - to please the authorities. This turmoil prevented continuous work on a number of substantial works, and the overall coherence of some of these (the so-called "War Sonatas", in particular) may have suffered as a result.

That he nonetheless managed to recover his poise and go on writing good music - including, in 1946, a symphony and a violin sonata high among the finest of our time - is formidable testimony to his inner strength.

In these works, Prokofiev acknowledged that while he himself was extraordinary, his fate was not, and that the tragedies and pain of others were things in which he shared and sympathised, and could turn into very great art.

*Sleevenote to Carnegie Hall Debut Concert (RCA Victor Gold Seal RD60443).
**Sleevenote to Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 7, 8 (Deutsche Grammophon 435 439-2).


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