December 16, 2011 8:22 pm

Sergei and the wolf

Why did Prokofiev return to Stalin’s Russia? A festival of the composer’s music provokes the question

I think that was partly why my grandfather died as young as he did,” says Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of the composer. “He discovered he was no longer the revered national figure who could do no wrong and that killed something in his spirit.”

Sergei Prokofiev with his wife Lina Llubera, who was sent to a gulag following their separation

Sergei Prokofiev with his wife Lina Llubera, who was sent to a gulag following their separation

As a composer himself, the younger Prokofiev understands what it must mean for a creative artist to see his work denigrated and curtailed by an oppressive political regime, as happened to his grandfather in Stalin’s Russia.

The big question is why Sergei Prokofiev was living in Russia at all. In 1918, aged 27, already with some major works to his credit, he had emigrated to the west. Although his heart might have remained in his native Russia, he carved out a successful career, first in the US, then in Europe, and by the mid-1930s was living in Paris with his young family. The city had become a hub for the cultural elite who had emigrated from Russia, starting with Diaghilev and Stravinsky, and there were certainly not many people going in the opposite direction.

Why did Prokofiev choose to go back? It was 1936 by the time he settled down permanently in Moscow with his wife, Lina Llubera, and their two sons, Sviatoslav and Oleg, and the political situation in Russia was already grim. Millions of Russians were dying through repression or starvation and Stalin’s cultural policy of “Socialist Realism” had marked the cards of many creative artists. How could Prokofiev have failed to realise that the path he was taking was going to lead to adversity and, for one family member, real suffering?

Over the space of two and a half weeks in January the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be investigating this theme in a concentrated festival of Prokofiev’s music. Entitled “Prokofiev: Man of the People?”, it will feature a wide range of the composer’s output but with a special focus on this crucial period of the 1930s and 1940s, when the composer’s music, like his life, reached a critical crossroads.

Vladimir Jurowski, the orchestra’s principal conductor, explains why he wanted to present a Prokofiev festival now. “There are certain figures in our culture we tend to come back to regularly over certain intervals of time,” he says. “By trying to understand them, we understand things about ourselves. Prokofiev is an emblematic figure of the 20th century, a figure full of controversy, of ambivalence, of contradictions, like the century itself.”

The subtitle of the festival – “Man of the People?” (note the question mark) – picks up the central point of controversy, which is that radical change of direction in Prokofiev’s life and music in the mid-1930s. Like the many Jewish composers forced to leave Nazi Germany in this period, he had found himself an émigré and his music, like theirs, tended to mirror the different stops on his travels – from enfant terrible in his student days at St Petersburg to coruscating fantasy in the US, and then what he called his “new simplicity” as the 1930s progressed. It is this last development that has exercised historians ever since.

Simon Morrison of Princeton University, who has written an essay for the festival programme, explains how the music changed. “Prokofiev didn’t want to follow the tra-la-la musicals of Broadway and didn’t like the expat style of some of his Russian colleagues in Europe. He had an innate gift for melody and wanted that to come to the fore. Just because he called this style ‘new simplicity’ doesn’t mean he wanted his music to be facile.”

The composer playing piano as a child

The composer playing piano as a child

The crucial debate, though, is whether Prokofiev went in this direction willingly or felt in some way under pressure. For a composer who was on the point of moving back to Stalin’s Russia, choosing whether to adopt a popular style in tune with Socialist Realism might be a choice between life or death. “Was he sincere,” asks Jurowski, “or was he trying to conceal the truth? Was he really ambivalent about his art? I don’t have the answers. But I do think it is significant that he said during his time in the Soviet Union that he always tried to be a ‘man of the people’. [The irony is that] the public condemnations of him branded him exactly the opposite – an enemy of the people.”

It was only a couple of years after his return to Russia that things turned sour. Once this lauded émigré composer was back within their grasp, the Russian authorities soon stopped giving him special treatment. Prokofiev might have expected that he would be seen as the biggest star in the small galaxy of composers left in Russia but he soon learnt otherwise. He hated seeing his music – such as the operas Semyon Kotko and War and Peace – altered by political dictat and had to accept that his successes were generally the works written in consultation with the authorities. It was, says Morrison, “a terrible story, one of the greatest examples of censorship in the major musical canon”.

Once Stalin had made his pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, Prokofiev was banned from travel outside the Soviet Union. For Lina, who was Spanish by birth, life took a disastrous turn. “The move to Russia had opened up cracks in my grandparents’ relationship and they separated,” says Gabriel Prokofiev. “Then my grandmother was sent to a gulag, an internment camp in Siberia, and was imprisoned there for eight years.” She lived until 1989, latterly in London, and Gabriel knew her well. “She was a very strong woman,” he observes.

Even so, through all these political twists and turns, Prokofiev continued to compose. Many of his great works date from this period – the cantata Alexander Nevsky, the Symphony No 5, the ballet Cinderella – as well as rarities that the festival will bring back into the spotlight: a staging of all the music for Egyptian Nights, with its mixture of texts by Shaw, Shakespeare and Pushkin; the rarely heard Symphonic Song, in which Prokofiev first started to explore his “new simplicity”; and the world premiere of an oratorio version of Ivan the Terrible by the composer’s assistant, Levon Atovmyan, which promises to be an exciting discovery. There will also be a classical club night, featuring the early ballet Trapeze, curated by Gabriel Prokofiev.

Jurowski hopes that, as well as encouraging audiences to explore the music of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, the festival will provoke them to go one step further and ponder the whole question of art and politics. Prokofiev will speak not only through his music but also through his diaries, which have a whole day’s programme devoted to them.

Thinking back over the family history, Gabriel Prokofiev has his own take on “Prokofiev – Man of the People?”

“From my perspective,” he says, “I wouldn’t have the question mark at all. Some composers may be self-absorbed or introverted but my grandfather wasn’t like that. He loved his audiences, the excitement created by his music, and the way it could bring people together. It was in this period that he found his true voice and his instinct for writing melodious and exciting music was at its height – so, in that respect, I would say his early years back in Russia were a golden period.”

‘Prokofiev: Man of the People?’, Southbank Centre, London, January 13-February 1. www.southbankcentre.com

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