From the archives: Prokofiev Was Stalin’s Final Victimby Norman Lebrecht
/ October 1, 2011
Flash version here.
in Vol. 8.9, June 2003
There has been no hour
like it in history. On the evening of March 5, 1953, between nine and
ten p.m. in a dacha on the edge of Moscow, Joseph Stalin died from the
effects of a cerebral haemorrhage. Fifty minutes earlier, in a communal
Moscow apartment, Serge Prokofiev died after suffering a stroke. The
congruity is unparalleled—indeed, it could only have been matched
had Shakespeare died within an hour of Elizabeth I or Goethe on the
night Napoleon expired. Potentate and artist, tyrant and victim, were
uniquely linked by the accident of death. They have remained conjoined
funeral there were no flowers: Stalin’s men had rounded up all winter
blooms. There were few mourners, barely 40, because all attention was
directed to the national loss. Three days passed before news of Prokofiev’s
death leaked to the West, three days more before it appeared in Pravda;
still, some got wind of it. The string quartet who played beside Stalin’s
open coffin wept openly—for Prokofiev.
Within three years,
Stalin’s crimes were denounced by Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th
party congress and the Great Leader and Teacher was consigned to perdition.
A slow thaw set in. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Gulag; Dmitri
Shostakovich codified the Great Terror in his symphonies. Artists who
outlived Stalin erased his stain from their work. Prokofiev, who died
with him, remains half-damned by association.
He is one of the
most familiar composers of the modern era. Peter and the Wolf
is performed in kindergartens and Romeo and Juliet is not only
danced by ballet companies but blared forth in football stadia as an
aggressive combat anthem. A composer as popular as Prokofiev cannot
reasonably be considered the victim of prejudice. However, these two
hits apart, the rest of his output, some 135 works, receives patchy
recognition. It is clouded by the unease that we might feel when entering
a mediaeval torture chamber, a mixture of faint curiosity and crawling
seven important symphonies, only the first and fifth are performed with
any regularity; of his five piano concertos, only the third and fifth.
How many of us can name, let alone claim to have seen, more than three
of his ten operas? How few living pianists play the nine sonatas as
There is no contention
about Prokofiev as there is about Shostakovich (or even Tchaikovsky);
no secret messages encrypted in the music, nothing but fertile melody
and crackling originality. Nor is there any dispute over his stature.
Prokofiev is universally acknowledged as one of the foremost composers
of the twentieth century, albeit the least explored. The root of that
paradox lies in his frozen embrace with Stalin.
left Russia after the revolution, returned in 1933 and resettled in
1936, the only genius who was fool enough to believe Stalin’s promises
of haven. He found creative stimulus in Moscow’s theatrical life and
intuitive interpreters in David Oistrakh, for whom he wrote two concertos,
and the pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. He enjoyed privileged
social status, a comfortable apartment and a country dacha. But in Stalin’s
first purge, seeing friends disappear, Prokofiev offered a craven cantata
for the 20th anniversary of the revolution, a 60th
birthday ode, Zdravitsa, to Stalin and sundry hymns to dam projects.
Abroad, he was recast as an official propagandist. Time magazine
captioned its 1945 cover story: “He keeps time with the Marxian metronome.”
Foreigners were unaware that his first wife, Lina, and their two sons
were being held in Siberia as hostages for his compliance.
In Stalin’s second
purge, he was publicly excoriated, deprived of work and reduced to near-starvation
while writing the last sonatas about, as Richter said, “a world which
had lost its balance.” His larder was restocked by the young cellist
Mstislav Rostropovich, who barged into the office of Prokofiev’s chief
tormentor, the Composers Union secretary Tikhon Khrennikov, and warned
that he would be held personally responsible if Prokofiev died of want.
Khrennikov coughed up 5,000 roubles.
When Stalin died,
Shostakovich managed to obliterate his forced obeisances in the bitingly
laconic Tenth Symphony. Prokofiev, in his grave, could not cleanse himself
of compromise. He appears, to the eyes of history, a weak man, over-fond
of comfort and lacking in moral courage. Stalin’s grin continues to
blight a damaged reputation. Attempts in the current fiftieth anniversary
year to find merit in his propaganda are misguided. Shouts of “Zdravitsa”
(Cheers!) to Stalin at the South Bank and Carnegie Hall will only reinforce
the existing linkage and give us an excuse to postpone the hour of our
reckoning with Prokofiev.
There is something
profoundly suspect about Western attitudes to this composer. Instead
of subjecting him to continuous critical assessment, we repeat favourite
works and shun the rest. Prokofiev makes us uneasy in ways that Ravel
does not. He reminds us of things we would prefer to forget—first
and foremost of our obeisance to Stalin. Yes, ours, not his. I have
on my desk the programme for a Sunday afternoon concert given by the
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Adrian Boult “in honour of Stalin’s
birthday.” The date is 21 December, 1941, and the main item on the
menu is Prokofiev. I have other papers of that period in which Walton,
Bliss and Malcolm Sargent are cheerily serenading Stalin. The whole
of Western civilisation went doolally for a smile from Uncle Joe and,
as Martin Amis justly contends, has never admitted its guilt in inflating
the monster’s megalomania. Prokofiev, by dying with Stalin, is buried
with him in our collective subconscious. We avoid most of his music
because of the associations it evokes, and the Russians treat it circumspectly
because the evil is still alive.
Half a century
on, it ought to be possible to detach Prokofiev from his times but history
is a fluid topic, rewritten day by day. Tikhon Khrennikov, 90 years
old this summer, is going around Moscow denying that he persecuted composers
for anything other than financial crimes. Prokofiev, he insists, never
suffered at his hands. In February 2003, Vladimir Putin awarded Khrennikov
the presidential prize, the state’s highest honour. Prokofiev’s
silence speaks volumes.