It is one of the abiding curiosities of modern music history that in 1936, at forty-four, after more than a decade of success in New York and Paris, Sergei Prokofiev took up permanent residence in Stalinist Moscow. For a while he enjoyed the privileges of official patronage, but, inevitably, the tide turned, and during the 1948 show trials, he was censured for formalist misdeeds along with Dmitri Shostakovich and others. Concert and theater managers withdrew his compositions from performances. Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, with his music, survived, a score Prokofiev came to despise precisely because it alone of his works was allowed to be played, ad nauseam, on Soviet radio. Prokofiev spent years in this sort of internal exile, homebound, invalided by strokes, sometimes capable only of a single hour’s work a day, and desperate to revise his ballets and operas to please the bureaucrats, many of them talentless competitors with no intention of rehabilitating him. Various of his last works speak to the effects of his self-censorship and opportunism.
Biographers of Prokofiev love to note his having died at sixty-one on March 5, 1953, within perhaps an hour of Stalin’s death, although the timing relies on official Soviet accounts that can’t be checked. Sovetskoye iskusstvo waited thirteen days to publish on page 4 its obituary of the composer. Alfred Schnittke, his younger colleague, who watched the funeral procession, later recalled how,
along an almost deserted street that ran parallel to the seething mass hysterically mourning the passing of Stalin, there moved in the opposite direction a small group of people bearing on their shoulders the coffin of the greatest Russian composer of the time…. To move against the tide in those days was hopeless. Yet even then there was—just as in earlier ages—the possibility of a choice between two decisions, only one of which was right.
There was a choice, that’s true, but few then had the audacity to make it. Fifteen people witnessed the interment.
The People’s Artist, by Simon Morrison, a musicologist at Princeton, draws from previously unexamined Soviet archives and private documents, among other things, to counter the claims made from time to time that Prokofiev devised coded criticisms of the regime in his late works; for those who want to hear such things, the codes are said to suggest pain and regret. Morrison steers clear of wishful conjectures, and also of the Soviet version of the story, by which, as Tikhon Khrennikov, head of the Union of Soviet Composers once put it, Russia provided the former émigré composer with magnificent and heroic “life impressions” of his homeland that “nourished his creative imagination.” That fiction suited Stalin’s propagandists, and it isn’t…
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