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Prokofiev Makes His Moves

Sergey Prokofiev: Dnevnik [Diaries] 1907–1933

edited by Sviatoslav Prokofiev
Paris: SPRKFV, three volumes, €110.00

1.

When Sergey Prokofiev fled Soviet Russia for the United States in 1918, among the other papers, manuscripts, and scores he left behind in Petrograd were the diaries he had kept for the past eleven years. The young composer was a seasoned diarist. As Anthony Phillips writes in an introduction to his new translation of the early diaries, on his twelfth birthday, in 1903, his mother had presented him with a thick, handsomely bound notebook, telling him to “write down in this everything that comes into your head”; for the next thirty years Prokofiev complied, filling his notebooks with vivid observations, musical reflections, and insights into personalities, often all the better for being trivial. He stopped writing diaries in 1933, when he began to prepare for his permanent return to Stalin’s Russia, where such records could be dangerous.

Prokofiev’s earliest diaries have been lost. But those from 1907 on were miraculously saved, some by the composer’s mother, who brought them out of Russia when she fled to France in 1920; others were hidden in Petrograd by his friends, including the conductor Sergey Koussevitzky and the composer Nikolay Myaskovsky. Prokofiev first returned to the Soviet Union on a concert tour in 1927, at which point he retrieved the diaries that were still there and took them to the United States. When he returned to Russia in the 1930s he put all his diaries in a US safe, where they remained until his death in 1953. In 1955, they were transferred, with his family’s consent, to the Central (Russian) State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, with access denied to all but the composer’s direct heirs for the next fifty years. But as his son Sviatoslav Prokofiev explains in his foreword to the diaries, after 1991 the family decided to publish them. Preparing the text for publication was a painstaking task of deciphering, according to Sviatoslav Prokofiev, because from 1914 onward, the composer started to employ “a system of writing down words with the vowels eliminated”:

Thus, for example, “chmd” for “chemodan” (suitcase); “snchl” for “snachala” (at first); “rstrn” for “restaurant”; “udrl” either for “udral” (did a bunk) or “udaril” (hit) and so on…. Our most difficult task was to decipher unfamiliar names, and this often entailed exhaustive researches.

The diaries are a revelation. No other composer wrote so much about himself. In 1,700 densely printed pages they provide an intimate and candid portrait of the artist as a young man that is radically different from the public image he presented in his autobiography, written at the height of Stalin’s terror in 1937.1 The hero of Prokofiev’s autobiography is passionate and serious, full of confidence in his talent, even arrogant; but in the diaries he comes across as awkward, shy, and insecure, despite his frequent boasting of his success. There is not much self-reflection in the diaries. “I am mostly setting out the facts, describing the day as it goes on from the morning through to the evening,” Prokofiev admits. The diaries’ strengths are their lively prose and clarity, their capacity to recreate the atmosphere of place and time, and their flair for dialogue—qualities that Anthony Phillips has happily maintained in his excellent translation. This literary talent is the other revelation of the diaries. As Prokofiev concluded in his diary on November 23, 1922: “Had I not been a composer, I would probably have become a writer or poet.”

Prokofiev was born in 1891 on the family’s estate in Sontsovka, a remote settlement on the Ukrainian steppe, where his father was an agronomist. The boy’s mother was the driving force behind his early musical career, instilling in him from an early age a belief in his destiny to become a composer. An amateur pianist who craved city life, she left her husband behind when she took her son to Moscow to study composition with Reinhold Glière, and then followed Sergei to the Russian capital, where, at the age of just thirteen, and still wearing shorts, he was the youngest student ever to enroll in the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, its senior professors, were astonished by the talents of the young prodigy, who already had four operas to his name. Here was the Russian Mozart.

The Prokofiev of the early diaries is a curious mixture of musical maturity and social childishness. At the age of sixteen, he is streaks ahead of his fellow students in composition, harmony, and theory, but still playing with teddy bears. He is shy among the girls, who outnumber the boys in the class for general education by seventeen to three, and although in time he revels in their company collectively, and even keeps a list to order them by preference, he feels a stronger attraction to beautiful young men. There is a romantic friendship with a music student called Max Schmidthof, who shares his passion for verbal sparring, travel, chess, fast cars, and expensive clothes. Max committed suicide in 1913, just before Prokofiev completed his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to his friend. In 1979, Prokofiev’s wife Lina was asked about their friendship by Harvey Sachs, who questioned if Schmidthof had been homosexual. She told Sachs that the Chess Club, to which the two men had both belonged, allowed “the possibility of having multi-tastes,” and that, while he never talked about such things, Prokofiev had “had such tendencies.”2

Prokofiev’s character emerges clearly in the pre-war diaries. Obsessively methodical, he makes lists of everything: compositions, marks in class, moves and scores at the Chess Club. Every aspect of his life is ordered and purposeful. At the age of nine, he tells us, he was “writing histories of the battles fought by my tin soldiers, keeping track of their losses and making diagrams of their movements.”3 Later, he reads fiction, but only to discover texts for his music, and biographies of composers to learn how to emulate their achievements. He keeps every letter he receives and drafts or copies of the letters he has sent, arranging them chronologically in bound volumes. He is constantly at work on his own archive. “In the afternoon,” he writes on July 18, 1914,

I rooted through all the drawers in my desk and the cupboards selecting what I planned to put in the fire-proof box: diaries, bound volumes of letters and letters that were still loose, music manuscripts, the “Yellow Book”4 and other such documents. The result was a huge pile, enough to fill a whole trunk.

Sometimes Prokofiev slips into the mode of autobiographical writing, switching from the real-time observation of events to an account of the past, as if charting his own life from the perspective of some future point in time, when he will have joined the pantheon of “great composers.” This tendency is particularly marked in the entries for 1911–1912, when he had barely entered his twenties—a time, he writes in the preface to his autobiography, when

having read Rimsky-Korsakov’s Record and a long biography of Tchaikovsky, and feeling that I was a composer in whom people were beginning to take an interest, I decided that in time I would write my autobiography. Someone had said in my presence: “I would compel all remarkable people to write their autobiographies.” I thought, I already have the material. All I have to do now is to become famous.5

Ambitious and competitive, Prokofiev is always thinking in his diaries about what he needs to promote his musical career. Success and recognition are everything to him. Forced by his father to take his diploma in composition theory two years earlier than necessary, the young composer bitterly regrets that he is thus deprived of the opportunity to improve his final marks and win a medal, and sulks at the awards ceremony in May 1909:

They read out my name from the stage and called me up to be formally presented with the piece of paper, but I did not go up—where would be the pleasure in that without the medal?

Prokofiev sees himself as “temperamentally easy-going” and quick to make friends, but others regard him as a prickly character, immature and arrogant, as revealed by a student’s pen-portrait that he cites in his diary on September 30, 1913:

Although he has some savoir-faire
His manners often let him down;
A childish streak is sometimes there
When he squires ladies round the town.
His tongue is not at all averse
To scorching people with a curse,
But woe betide the man who tries
To do it back to Serge: he dies.

Prokofiev is “not much given to soul-searching,” as he himself admits. He lacks self-awareness at this stage. Emotionally he seems detached, and perhaps a little cold. On the death of his father, in July 1910, he writes in his diary:

Did I love him? I do not know. Were anyone ever to insult or do him harm, I would have gone to any lengths to defend him. As for loving him, in the past six years I had grown away from him. We had little in common.

Fourteen years later, when his mother died, a far more central figure in his life, Prokofiev only writes: “Mother died in my arms at 12.15 am.” And not another word. For a year he concealed her death, making up excuses for her “poor health” in his correspondence with friends and relatives, ostensibly because he did not want to burden them with the sad news, but perhaps too because he couldn’t deal with the issue.

2.

The Conservatory was the center of musical life in St. Petersburg, a city in the vanguard of the cultural revolution that transformed all the arts in Europe in the years before the outbreak of World War I. Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov were bastions of the Russian nineteenth-century musical traditions in the Conservatory, while Anatoly Lyadov continued to compose in his own languorous style of Russian folk-inspired musical impressionism, but modern European trends were being introduced and radically transformed at a dizzying rate by their students—young composers such as Nikolay Tcherepnin, Myaskovsky, and Igor Stravinsky—whose music was increasingly rich in dissonance, and tonally and rhythmically unorthodox.

Among these, Prokofiev was most directly influenced by Tcherepnin, the composer of Le Pavillion d’Armide, the curtain-raiser to the 1909 saison russe in Paris, and (until he withdrew from the project) the man originally intended by Sergey Diaghilev to compose the music for The Firebird.6 Prokofiev attended Tcherepnin’s conducting class at the Conservatory and Tcherepnin encouraged him to develop the neoclassical style which became the hallmark of Prokofiev’s early works, from the Sinfonietta of 1909 to the First (“Classical”) Symphony of 1916–1917.

The influence of Petr Tchaikovsky—a sort of patron saint to the Russian music world long after his death in 1893—is another revelation of the diaries. Tchaikovsky was the model of the “great composer” which the young Prokofiev aspired to become. In 1913, Prokofiev took five months to read and study a biography of the Russian composer (presumably the three-volume life by his brother Modest Tchaikovsky7 ). He took inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s life, his speed of composition, and from the “stunning beauty” and “emotional power” of his music, the Sixth Symphony in particular. In emulation of its qualities, he strove to introduce a “simple and transparent” style to the orchestral accompaniment of the Second Piano Concerto, which he was then finishing.

  1. 1

    Sergey Prokofiev, Avtobiografiia, edited by Miralda Kozlova (Moscow: Sovetskii Kompozitor, 1973; revised with supplementary chapters, 1982). There is a heavily abridged translation, Prokofiev by Prokofiev: A Composer’s Memoir, edited by David H. Appel and translated by Guy Daniels (Doubleday, 1979); further cuts were made for the British edition, edited by Francis King (London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1979).

  2. 2

    David Nice, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891–1935 (Yale University Press, 2003), p. 59.

  3. 3

    Prokofiev by Prokofiev, edited by Francis King, p. xi.

  4. 4

    A small yellow notebook in which he kept the answers by interesting people he had met to the question “What are your thoughts on the sun?”

  5. 5

    Prokofiev by Prokofiev, p. xii.

  6. 6

    After Tcherepnin’s withdrawal, the Firebird commission was offered to Lyadov, who failed to compose anything (he was notoriously lazy), and then to Glazunov, who turned the offer down, whereupon it went to Stravinsky, Diaghilev’s fourth choice.

  7. 7

    Modest Tchaikovsky, Zhizn’ Petra Il’icha Chaikovskogo three volumes (Moscow-Leipzig, 1900–1902).

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