Sergei Prokofiev


Mystery and Contradiction

by Chad Twedt


Click here to read Prokofiev, Prisoner of the State

One of the greatest Russian composers was an early twentieth-century composer, Sergei Prokofiev, born on April 23, 1891 in Ukraine. Unlike a majority of composers during his time, Prokofiev was able to entertain, surprise, shock, and even leave his audiences in disgust with a wide variety of compositional styles, such as his "Classical" Symphony in contrast to "Suggestion Diabolique" for piano solo. What is most interesting about Prokofiev, however, was the tremendous pressure that he must have felt from the politics of his day, and how it affected his music. As Kauffmann puts it in her entry for the Encyclopedia Americana,

His music, under the influence of communist ideology, underwent a change, growing more harmonic and less infused with mocking humor. (p. 651)

It is very plain and simple to see that Prokofiev was influenced by poilitics, but what is not so simple is deciding whether or not Prokofiev's reaction to political pressure was sincere, or if he was just trying to please his critics and get his reputation back.

What might first raise some eyebrows about Prokofiev's influence is something that Prokofiev himself wrote in a letter to the Composers' Union in 1948:

As far as I am concerned, elements of formalism were peculiar to my music as long as fifteen or twenty years ago. Apparently the infection caught from contact with some Western ideas. (Music in the Western World, p. 499)

This is the same Prokofiev speaking about "Formalism," or "Modernism," as Slonimsky points out in his introduction to the letter, as the Prokofiev who shocked audiences with pieces such as "Suggestion Diabolique" and his First Piano Concerto, both of which were composed before he was twenty years old, well before he left Russia for the United States. It is also the same Prokofiev who hadn't been able to appreciate composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert:

He disdained the Classical repertory, and if he played Mozart or Schubert at all, it was with his own doublings and "improvements." (McAllister, The New Grove Dictionary, p. 289)

When Prokofiev was fourteen, he wrote in a letter to his father after he watched an orchestra give a concert:

The concert was amazingly uninteresting: they played something very long and boring by Mozart. (Prokofiev by Prokofiev, pp. 131-132)

Even Debussy was hard for Prokofiev to stand--Prokofiev refers to Debussy's music as

...jelly...absolute spineless music...except perhaps, it's very personal jelly, and the jellymaker knows what he's doing. (The Piano Works of Prokofiev, p. 3)

One has to wonder how such contrasting views can come from the same person, and contradict themselves in almost every way possible.

What offers a different view, however, is an interview of Prokofiev in "The Composer Speaks" (The New Book of Modern Composers). What might be most surprising at first about this statement is the fact that he made it in 1941, which was seven years before the Composers' Union publicly censured Prokofiev's music--it seems to suggest at first glance that Prokofiev was in fact sincere in his desire to become more harmonious:

I strive for greater simplicity and more melody. Of course I have used dissonance in my time, but there has been too much dissonance. (pp. 299-300)

Since September of 1923, Prokofiev had been happily married to Lina Llubera, a Spanish-born singer who he met in France. They had two sons, Svyatoslav in 1924 and Oleg in 1928. In 1936, Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union with his family. The shocking part of the story comes in Spring of 1940, when Prokofiev met Mira Mendelson, a 25-year-old graduate from the Moscow Literary Institute (Prokofiev was almost 50 years old). Their friendship, according to McAllister,

...led to the break-up of his marriage. The details of the matter are complicated, and it has been suggested that political dealings were involved. Lina Prokofiev, as a foreigner, was certainly by that time persona non grata in Moscow; some years later she was arrested on charges of espionage and comitted to a labour camp. Mira Mendelson had strong party ties and, as Seroff has aptly put it, the years 1939-41 were less conducive to romance than they were to survival. Prokofiev was never completely estranged from her, and Mira Mendelson, though she lived with the composer until his death, was not, as Soviet sources state, his second wife. (p. 297)

This seems to strongly suggest that something was going on in Prokofiev's life politically at the time, and if it was the main reason that Prokofiev broke off his 17-year marriage, there is no telling what it could have done to the philosophy behind his music. Victor Seroff points out in his biography, Sergei Prokofiev: A Soviet Tragedy:

No one can be expected to believe that a mere matrimonial disagreement between Prokofiev and his wife could have endangered the state to such a degree that Lina had to be classified as almost a "security risk." Certainly neither Lina's nor Myra Mendelson's Memoirs about Prokofiev indicate the slightest evidence of matrimonial troubles.

Extending this even further, Harlow Robinson even suggests that the political pressure that Prokofiev faced not only affected his personal life, but his health as well:

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the extraordinary personal and political pressure under which Prokofiev had been living since 1936 was at least a contributing, if not determining, cause of his illness. (pp. 438-439)

In view of Prokofiev's mysterious treatment of his marriage, and his contradicting statments of wanting to become more harmonious but hating the music of Mozart, it is difficult to say whether or not Prokofiev meant everything he said and did.

Yet another point of confusion, and possibly the most confusing of all, is the question of why Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union at all--why didn't he just stay in France, where his music was a great success, and where he and Lina met and had their children? As Laurel Fay puts it best in his article in Notes,

Prokofiev's decision to repatriate to Stalinist Russia in the mid-1930s continues to disturb scholars. In the search for clues to explain his decision, the 1927 trip--Prokofiev's first trip back to Soviet Russia in nine years since he left in 1918, ...has always loomed large. (p. 1418)

It could have been that Prokofiev was simply homesick--McAllister suggests that his desire to be home with his old Russian friends was the main reason he went back.

After examining all of the contradictions and mysteries in Prokofiev's life, it still remains difficult to say for sure whether or not Prokofiev's reaction to Soviet influence was sincere--was Prokofiev merely telling everyone what they wanted to hear? Montgomery adds a little more meaning to this idea in his article in Slavic Review: is apparent that he often behaved injudiciously while negotiating his personal and business affairs with highly-placed figures of the cultural bureaucracy. (p. 577)

Regardless of the sincerity of his words and whether or not his later music was an accurate reflection of his true inner desires, it can be strongly argued on either side whether or not the Soviet influence of Prokofiev's music was a good thing. After all, some of his most popular works were written after he came back to the Soviet Union, such as Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, his Sixth Symphony, his film score, Alexander Nevsky, among many other works which are relatively popular today.

Because of this I would personally argue that the music that resulted from his Soviet influence in his later years was good, but at the same time, I wonder if it would have been even better if it weren't for the rule of Stalin and the Composers' Union. I would also wonder if Prokofiev could have dealt with the fact that he was destined to die in Moscow on March 5, 1953, the same day that Stalin died.

Here is what Dr. Catherine Smith wrote back to me in response to my paper:

Conditions of patronage have influenced what composers wrote, probably more often than not. Bach stopped composing his weekly cantatas; Haydn, one wonders--did he want to write all those symphonies? But, I haven't ever seen the suggestion that Prokofiev was free to leave the USSR once he returned--

This is a good account--It suggests to me that Prokofiev's desires were almost irrelevant. There's an anomaly you haven't pointed out--"Mendelson" (the Party apparatchile's name), is a Jewish name--No doubt there's another story there.



Ewen, David, ed. The New Book of Modern Composers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1962.

Fay, Laurel E., "Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings," Notes vol. 49, no. 4 (June 1993):1417-1419.

Fiess, Stephen C.E. The Piano Works of Serge Prokofiev. New York: Dover, 1981.

Kauffmann, Helen L. "Prokofiev, Sergei." Encyclopedia Americana: Deluxe Library Edition. Danbury, Connecticut: Groiler Inc., 1993, pp. 650-651.

McAllister, Rita. "Prokofiev, Sergey." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Sadie, Stanley. Washington DC: Groves Dictionaries of Music Inc., 1980, pp. 288-301.

Montgomery, David, "Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings," Slavic Review vol. 53, no. 2 (Summer, 1994):576-577.

Prokofiev, Sergei. "A Composer on Trial." Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Weiss, Piero, and Taruskin, Richard, eds. New York: Schirmer Books, 1984.

Prokofiev, Sergei. Prokofiev By Prokofiev: A Composer's Memoir New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979.

Robinson, Harlow. "A Lyric Gamble: Chicago Spins the Wheel with Prokofiev," Opera News, vol. 56, no. 5 (Nov. 1991):30-32.

Robinson, Harlow. Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987.

"Prokofiev, Sergie." The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: Childcraft International, Inc., 1982, p. 719.

Seroff, Victor. Sergei Prokofiev: A Soviet Tragedy. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.

Taruskin, Richard, "Modernism in Russian Piano Music: Skriabin, Prokofiev, and Their Russian Contemporaries," Slavic Review vol. 53, no. 3 (Fall 1994):865-866.