Prokofiev Makes His Moves

Sergey Prokofiev: Dnevnik [Diaries] 1907–1933

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

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. 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 …

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Letters

Corrections May 31, 2007