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Prodigal Son

Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography

by Harlow Robinson
Viking, 573 pp., $29.95

In the 1940s, when Shostakovich was at the height of his success in America, I heard Stravinsky being asked what he thought of the Soviet composer and I still remember the venom in his voice as he shouted back, “Pas de talent.” A followup question solicited his opinion of Prokofiev and, all venom gone, he said that was an entirely different thing. Some years earlier Stravinsky himself had been the composer who was most likely to figure in such a comparison with Prokofiev. In Paris, where Prokofiev settled as a refugee in the aftermath of the October Revolution after having tried his fortune in America, Diaghilev admitted him as a member of his coterie and referred to him as his “second son”—Stravinsky having been for a number of years his “first.” The manner in which the “brothers” pursued their careers in tandem for a while is one of the subjects generously described by Harlow Robinson with his flair for interesting and relevant information in his absorbing new biography of Prokofiev. It becomes evident from Robinson’s account that instead of what should have been pride on Prokofiev’s part the pairing with Stravinsky brought out Prokofiev’s competitiveness. He was “very aware of Stravinsky’s head start with Diaghilev.”

Prokofiev was not without a certain reputation of his own, even if this was owing in no small part to his tours as a brilliant pianist playing his own music, which were, incidentally, his main source of income during his years outside Russia between 1918 and 1935. (A picture caption in an American periodical once read: “The composer Stravinsky and the pianist Prokofiev.”) I know of many composers who would be content with the international reputation Prokofiev had achieved. But Prokofiev set his sights higher. In one of the less felicitously worded statements in a capably written narrative Robinson observes: “Prokofiev’s fear of becoming second-rate haunted him throughout his years in Paris, where he was only one fish in a large and glamorous pool, competing for the attention of a sophisticated public and fickle promoters.”

In addition to being able to rely on ballet commissions from Diaghilev, Prokofiev enjoyed the patronage of Serge Koussevitzky, who had a concert series in Paris at which he presented the composer’s music. With the conductor’s departure in 1924 to assume the directorship of the Boston Symphony, and the death of the powerful impresario in 1929, Prokofiev had good reason by the end of the 1920s to fear for his future. Moreover, some of his compositions were poorly received (his adventurous Second Symphony among them) and other music was not played at all. The notion gradually impressed itself upon him that opportunity was offered by his native land. His return for a visit in 1927 was so highly acclaimed that it must certainly have confirmed his belief that his success in the West, limited though it may have appeared in his own estimation, would sustain him as a conquering hero in Russia and enable him to lord it over provincial composers who had never ventured outside. His ties with Russia became increasingly close and as he continued his visits he managed to revise his status: first from that of émigré to that of ambassador, whose mission was to act as “advance post” for Soviet culture abroad, and then from that of ambassador to that of loyal Soviet citizen. In December 1935, he transferred his family and permanent domicile from Paris to Moscow.1

Prokofiev had to be “politically naive” to take this step, Stravinsky once remarked. The decisive move to resettle could not have been more ill-timed. Even while he was still free to leave, he was untouched either by Stalin’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in January 1936, or by the Moscow trials that presently ensued. As Stravinsky put it, “When finally he understood his situation there, it was too late.” Doubtless he had thought that changing his permanent address was a formality and that he would continue to have the best of both worlds by shuttling as before between East and West. After all, Maxim Gorki had been doing precisely this, and if political pressures prevented the writer from continuing to do so after 1931, their significance was lost on Prokofiev.

The rescinding of Prokofiev’s right to travel after 1938 must have been one of the first blows to bring him around to the realization that he was not to be the privileged character he had anticipated he would be. At the same time, in all fairness it should be noted that had he persisted in his travels he very likely would not have continued much longer to display his music abroad as a pianist. For he would come to rely more and more on distinguished Soviet pianists like Sviatoslav Richter to play his piano works. Moreover, in the 1940s he would have the benefit of worldwide promotion on a scale that makes anything he himself could accomplish by personal appearances absolutely trivial by comparison. Those were the years of Soviet-American friendship when the Soviet propaganda machine found a powerful vehicle in music. I do not recall that Prokofiev provoked anything like the frantic bidding for the United States première of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. (Toscanini won out.) But among the recordings that I accumulated as a reviewer during that period a sizable shelf of Prokofiev LPs remains as a memento that scarcely a month went by without another release of his music.

The place at the top that Prokofiev had expected to achieve in the USSR was not his until 1946. The fate of being “second” had still pursued him. In 1943, when he finally won a Stalin Prize, it was “second class,” and this only after having been passed over more than once since the prize had been inaugurated in 1940. (Robinson cites Prokofiev’s émigré past as one of the reasons for this.) The Seventh Sonata, notwithstanding the “second class” prize it received, was recognized abroad as the major work it surely is, and in America it had no less an interpreter than Vladimir Horowitz, who almost never plays new music. In 1945 Prokofiev at last satisfied the taste of the Soviet public and officialdom for the monumental, affirmative symphonic manner with the première of his Fifth Symphony, which received a Stalin Prize first class in January of the following year. First class prizes also went to the Eighth Sonata and to Part I of the film score for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Also in 1946 a host of concerts observed Prokofiev’s fifty-fifth birthday. “In recent memory,” Robinson reports, “no other Soviet composer—not even Shostakovich—had been so extravagantly and affectionately honored. Prokofiev had reached the highwater mark of his Soviet career.”

If the occasion was a joyful one for Prokofiev, the joy was neither unalloyed nor lasting. Around the same time he was stricken with an illness that lingered until his death in 1953—high blood pressure, which became evident when a dizzy spell caused Prokofiev to have a serious fall. In 1948, after the relative cultural freedom of the war years, Zhdanov’s ideological crackdown reached composers and Prokofiev was branded with that most dreaded of all labels: “formalist.” Within an environment of close surveillance Prokofiev was understandably reticent on the matter of how he felt about his return to Russia, but by now he must have recognized it as a mistake—a tragic mistake. Indeed, even before the ax fell, Robinson suggests, the tension under which he lived may very well have brought on his high blood pressure.

There were other things as well to detract from any satisfaction derived from his success. Even at its height he suffered reproach from jealous, smallminded bureaucrats. In a book on Prokofiev that was published in the mid-Forties as a byproduct of his finally receiving official sanction as a composer (a previous attempt to publish one had been opposed by the bureaucracy) Israel V. Nestyev keeps qualifying his encomiums with warnings against the “vulnerable aspects of Prokofiev’s style”—“the forces of tradition and habit inculcated in modernist and Western circles.”2 The author’s delight at each sign of the composer’s casting off his modernism is as great as anything you will find today in postmodern criticism when it celebrates the reactionary “new romanticism” in some latter-day music. Prokofiev the émigré had been found by his high-powered Parisian associates to be unsophisticated as a person and unfashionably conservative as a musician. Prokofiev the repatriated composer impressed his Soviet peers as too cosmopolitan in his airs and dress and a prey to “decadent” modern influences in his music.

Not the least of his concerns was the looming presence of Shostakovich—a composer who had posed no threat when Prokofiev had first contemplated returning. A passion for rating things, traced back by Robinson to a youthful obsession, would inevitably cause Prokofiev to preoccupy himself with the question of who was “first.” Even at the height of his success he could not claim this rank unequivocally for himself. Robinson precedes any mention of Shostakovich’s memoirs with the epithet “alleged” since their authenticity has been recently challenged. But whoever was responsible for the following remarks credited to Shostakovich, they are revealing:

Prokofiev was always afraid that he was being overlooked—cheated out of his prizes, orders, and titles. He set great store by them and was overjoyed when he received his first Stalin Prize. This naturally did not further our relationship, or improve the friendly atmosphere, so to speak.

Prokofiev is a composer whose music I do not think about very much. Yet when I hear the best of it, which does not include the pièces d’occasion written to appease the Stalin regime, I am impressed by how good it is—by its elegance and fine craftsmanship. I have had a similar experience with Dvorák though I would not pursue the analogy except to say that his position in Brahms’s shadow is not unlike the position of Prokofiev in Stravinsky’s. Students of composition do not find anything unique in Prokofiev’s techniques from which they may learn. Despite his dissonant early works—products of youthful iconoclasm (a refusal to be a “nice student” at the St. Petersburg Conservatory) and later of a frankly avowed attempt to cater to Parisian taste—he was essentially devoted to tradition, to the strict precepts of his conservative mentor Nikolai Tcherepnin. Prokofiev’s early reputation for musical sarcasm and persiflage and as a “bad boy” of music—a locution also used for members of the French “Six”—pursued him much to his displeasure well into his career. (Darius Milhaud similarly despaired of the lingering public image of himself as a clown created by his shenanigans as a member of the “Six” around 1920.) By the late 1920s Prokofiev started to put modernism behind him. In his ballet Prodigal Son of 1929 he is clearly so inclined.

Modernism is often assumed to be synonymous with complexity, and it may very well be, though it is not altogether clear to what extent the complexity is a semblance imposed by the strangeness of idiom and the effort it demands. However that may be, Prokofiev’s reaction against modernism took the form of a devout embrace of simplicity. Although Robinson’s book is primarily biographical—the token musical references remaining at the level of program notes—he deals with the years between 1932 and 1935 in a chapter designated “A New Simplicity.” Of the many hypotheses that have been advanced to account for Prokofiev’s perplexing decision to return to Russia the one to which Robinson gives most credence is the composer’s growing recognition that his genuine predisposition toward a simple, more traditional style did not go down well with the critics and modern music public of the West. Indeed, even in the years before he emigrated, at a time when Socialist Realism had not yet begun to dominate the cultural scene, he was able to legitimize this predisposition only by passing it off in the guise of a stunt, an intermittent nod to the past in his “Classical” Symphony of 1917.

In contrast to the lightness and economy of that symphony, his first, a high seriousness and expansiveness pervade the Fifth Symphony; the model is now nineteenth-century romanticism. It is equally a kind of a music with which Prokofiev felt comfortable, even if it deliberately cultivates what Robinson characterizes as the “massive patriotic style” after the manner of Shostakovich that Soviet audiences and the bureaucracy required. Prokofiev could write the music he wanted to write as long as he fulfilled his political responsibility by turning out acceptable occasional pieces—his “public” efforts, most of them choral, with texts glorifying the official cause. He does not seem to have thought much of these works. His “private” works employed the skills he had mastered at home before the Revolution and benefited from the experience he had acquired abroad. It is not at all certain that the bureaucracy substantially determined his development, as it did in the case of Shostakovich, whose entire development took place under the bureaucracy’s watchful eye.

Prokofiev’s reliance on nineteenth-century models—sonata form, tonality, singable tunes—is of an order that ought to identify him as an academic. Academic works, to quote the aesthetician D.W. Prall, “instead of taking their origin in an artist’s peculiar purpose, the purpose that defines activity as artistic,” offer “the exemplification of a definition that has been given by the works of others.” But Prokofiev’s music has the stamp of his personality. Even when he takes a standard musical scale—a device of common practice that modern music tends to avoid—he gives it a freshness that makes it his own. The first and less familiar of his two sonatas for violin and piano (completed in 1946) is a striking instance of a work in which scales are invested with a quite special character that led the composer to describe them as “wind in a graveyard.” Then there are those odd or dissonant chords woven into the texture of fairly traditional harmony—“mischievous intervals” according to Robinson, byproducts of the “awkward and ironic ‘wrong-note’ style with which Prokofiev is identified.” (To reconcile such chords with the basic harmonic texture requires considerable skill, and it is all too obvious when Prokofiev falters, giving the unprepared return to normality a certain pallor.) Prokofiev’s orchestration is also personal—his way of italicizing the upper extremity of the pitch spectrum with flute or piccolo, and the lower extremity with doublings. “Juliet’s Death” from the third suite of Romeo and Juliet contrasts the two devices.

Robinson provides little insight into the technical means through which the composer achieves his results, but any effort to do so would be out of place in a book about the composer’s life and times. The author is a specialist in Slavic literature and languages, with music as an avocation, and since Prokofiev lived out his years against a background is of no little consequence in placing him. Robinson has none of the bias of previous biographers, who viewed Prokofiev from the vantage point of either loyal Soviet servant or cynical émigré. Access to Soviet records is limited, of course, and notwithstanding the author’s efforts I should not be surprised if there were claims of fact that I have failed to recognize as questionable.

The changing scene lends an element of suspense to the narrative. I found myself drawn to the five hundred pages of text as I rarely am in reading a biography (seventy-five pages contain an excellent index, chronology, and notes). Indeed, the pauses in the chronicle of events to dwell on a piece of music or to recount the plot of a ballet, opera, or film sometimes came as unwelcome interruptions. What revelation would be next, and how would it affect Prokofiev? In 1947 part two to the opera War and Peace was ready to be mounted, but the Party discovered, suddenly, some “significant political flaws in the ‘historical concept.”’ At another time the anti-German elements in the opera Semyon Kotko had to be revised and the film Alexander Nevsky shelved because Stalin had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler; but when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 anti-German sentiments, such as those in Ivan the Terrible and War and Peace, became exemplary.

Robinson occasionally reveals that he is less than an expert on contemporary music, as when he casually mentions Prokofiev’s decision to do away with transcription in writing out orchestral scores and fails to realize that in doing so in 1912 Prokofiev anticipated a convention that would later be adopted as one of the most significant innovations in twentieth-century notation. Robinson also cites a two-piano arrangement of Schubert that Prokofiev made in 1925 as having employed on-stage pianos in ballet; but it is odd that he does not mention the classic example of this practice, Stravinsky’s Les Noces of 1923 with its four pianos.

Robinson spares us the usual hyperbole, taking for granted the importance of the composer he has written about. His main assessment of the music, that it is essentially pictorial, is a cogent one. (Whoever lifted the signature music for the slickly pictorial episodes of Dallas out of the “Morning Music” of Romeo and Juliet must have agreed.) For the most part, listeners must satisfy themselves with evocations of the pictorial as they listen at concerts to the ballet suites or to the instrumental music that often incorporates sections of the stage works that are rarely performed in America. But we shall never be able to take the full measure of Prokofiev’s contribution until we have the opportunity to become more familiar with his many theater works (including eight operas) while seeing the stage performance for which their music was intended.

  1. 1

    Soviet chroniclers have given 1933 as the year in which Prokofiev was finally repatriated; but I follow Robinson in this matter.

  2. 2

    Israel V. Nestyev, Sergei Prokofiev: His Musical Life (Knopf, 1946).

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