The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years
By Simon Morrison
Oxford University Press; 512 pp. $17.95
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) remains one of the most popular of twentieth-century classical composers. Yet until this book by Simon Morrison, very little was known about the last two decades of his life, encompassing the years after Prokofiev's decision to return to and take up permanent residence in the Soviet Union. Morrison is the first biographer to have extensive access to the secret files of the KGB, and to the files of other Soviet agencies that kept confidential material on Prokofiev. Originally released in 2008, The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years has more recently been reissued in an affordable paperback edition.
Prokofiev's decision to return to Soviet Russia sprang from a complex set of motives. Among them was his hope that in the Soviet Union he would be able to rein in his rootless lifestyle as an itinerant virtuoso and finally devote his full energies to composition. Morrison's book reveals ample evidence that a massive effort was made on the Soviet side to entice Prokofiev and other expatriates back to their homeland. Prokofiev made several visits, during which time he was treated as a national treasure, with numerous performances of his works, and with commissions for future projects proffered. Eventually the composer agreed to return with his wife and two sons. At first, Prokofiev was allowed to travel abroad and continue his international career as a pianist, conductor and celebrity composer. However, after early 1938 Prokofiev's rights were curtailed, and he never again left the Soviet Union.
Morrison's book details the degree to which Prokofiev and his peers became subject to the personal whims of temperamental bureaucratic nobodies of dubious cultural or intellectual integrity, and to lesser composers who had wheedled their way into the halls of political power. An endless procession of censoring panels forced Prokofiev to make extensive revisions to his operas and ballets, and all too often, entire works had to be discarded because the storyline employed could not be made to fit with the current wrinkles in Stalinist ideological purity. Prokofiev's librettists, directors and choreographers often came under ferocious scrutiny. Some of them eventually were marched off to labor camps or execution. Prokofiev endured through all of this, often recycling music from denounced compositions into new projects and genres. His Christian Science faith and his almost physical need to compose kept him afloat as colleagues and collaborators fell left and right. Eventually, Prokofiev fell victim — along with Shostakovich and others — to the 1948 edict condemning "musical formalism" among composers. His works banned, Prokofiev was forced to make a public apology, and he subsequently lived in dire poverty and continual fear of being imprisoned. His health, already shaky from chronic high blood pressure and a severe concussion, rapidly declined. Eventually, Prokofiev's works were restored to the public, and he received commissions for new ones. However, these works also faced continuous demands for revisions and often were modified without his personal input or approval.
Morrison has written a highly engaging account of Prokofiev's life and works during the Soviet years, filled with revealing anecdotes, cogent analyses of the major works and extensive documentation. Particularly notable is his narration of the great artistic collaboration between Prokofiev and film director Sergei Eisenstein and his discussions of the operas Semyon Kotko and War and Peace. Prokofiev labored on War and Peace over the last decade of his life, continually faced with governmental demands for revisions. Morrison's analysis raises the curious notion that in a few particular instances War and Peace benefited from this outside interference and became a stronger work. However, these serendipitous moments were few and far between.
The People's Artist unequivocally is and will remain the definitive study of Prokofiev's later years. It leaves the reader with an enhanced respect for Prokofiev as a brilliant composer as well as a man who continued to persevere artistically despite inhuman pressures. It brilliantly recalls the horrors of Stalinism without devolving into an ideological screed. Music scholars and lay people alike will enjoy and benefit from reading it.
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