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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 5 March, 2003, 09:08 GMT
Prokofiev legacy holds strong
By Paula Kennedy
BBC Monitoring

Prokofiev in 1952, photographed by his son Sviatoslav
Prokofiev had the misfortune to die on the same day as Stalin
Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev died 50 years ago on Wednesday. BBC News Online looks at his legacy.

It is tempting to wonder if the ghosts of the millions murdered by Josef Stalin passed before his eyes as he lay dying on 5 March 1953.

One ghost he might have been surprised to see was that of long-term persecution target, composer Sergey Prokofiev.

Despite avoiding an official death sentence, Prokofiev had just died of a brain haemorrhage.

For the young Prokofiev, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had seemed like a breath of fresh air.

He delighted in his reputation as the enfant terrible of Russian music and took every opportunity to upset the bourgeois sensibilities of the concert-going public.

Unfortunately, the chaos that followed the Revolution meant it was no longer so easy to make a living from concert-giving, and so in 1918 Prokofiev decided to try his luck abroad.

He enjoyed a reasonable degree of success in both Europe and the United States, but not quite as much as he had hoped for.

Foreign air does not suit my inspiration, because I'm Russian, that is to say the least suited of men to be an exile
Prokofiev, 1933
By the mid-1930s, homesick and with a young family to support, he succumbed to the siren voices in the Soviet cultural establishment urging him to return.

Prokofiev was too politically na´ve to realise that the Soviet authorities simply wanted to be able to claim his home-coming as a ringing endorsement of the Soviet system.

Even more disastrously for his own music, he failed to predict the immense pressure he would be put under to conform to the official cultural policy - the doctrine of Socialist Realism.

Artists were expected to subscribe to this to demonstrate their revolutionary fervour, yet this approach invariably produced blandly conservative works.

Bad timing

Prokofiev finally re-settled in the Soviet Union in 1936. But Stalin's reign of terror was then just reaching its height, and even artists with impeccable Soviet credentials could fall from grace overnight.

From now on fear was very much part of the fabric of his life.

I care nothing for politics - I'm a composer first and last
Prokofiev, 1937
Old friends and artistic collaborators were arrested by the secret police and never seen again.

The war years brought some respite, as Stalin's attention was temporarily diverted elsewhere, and artists were simply encouraged to do their bit to boost morale.

Prokofiev sought solace in his work, and found a worthy collaborator in the film director Sergey Eisenstein, a former pupil of Meyerhold.

Composer and director joined forces to create two classics of Soviet cinema: Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible.

Cultural politics

Once the Red Army's victory over the German forces was complete, Stalin again began to take an unhealthy interest in suspected anti-Soviet forces at home.

Through his henchman, the cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov, he came down heavily first on writers and then theatre and film directors.

Stalin, who identified with the figure of Ivan the Terrible, was incensed when he saw the second part of Eisenstein's film, in which Ivan is portrayed as an ambiguous Hamlet-like figure instead of the man of iron of Stalin's imagination.

A decree was issued condemning Eisenstein's work. The incomplete third part of the film was destroyed, and the director's career was over.

All attempts to "play down" to the listener not only underestimate his cultural maturity - they also contain an element of insincerity
Prokofiev, 1937
Even the politically unaware Prokofiev must have realised that worse was still to come.

In January 1948, another decree was issued accusing the "big four" of Soviet music - Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Myaskovsky - of having allowed "formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies" to creep into their works.

Then in February 1948, Prokofiev's first wife Lina was arrested on a trumped-up charge of spying and sentenced to 20 years in a labour camp.

Eisenstein had died of a heart attack shortly before Lina's arrest, and the deaths of several other old friends over the next few years served to increase Prokofiev's sense of isolation.

No flowers

He wrote little of importance during the last few years of his life.

Josef Stalin lying in state, 7 March 1953
Stalin was given a lavish send-off
The fact that he died on the same day as Stalin even cheated him of a proper funeral.

The flower shops of Moscow were emptied by those mourning the passing of the dictator, and only a single pine branch could be found to lay on Prokofiev's coffin.

But his reputation has grown over the years, and the 50th anniversary of his death is being marked by a plethora of events celebrating his artistic achievements.

A little late in the day, perhaps, one of Russia's greatest composers has finally turned the tables on his old tormentor.

Prokofiev is Composer of the Week on Radio 3 until Friday. A Prokofiev anniversary concert will be held at St John's Smith Square, London on Wednesday 5 March

Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin, a festival directed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, takes place at the South Bank Centre, London, from Friday and continues until 23 March 2003.

Photo of Prokofiev reproduced by permission of the Prokofiev Archive.

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