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The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
January 23, 2003
'My father was nave'
Fifty years after the death of composer Sergei Prokofiev, Geoffrey Norris talks to his son and Vladimir Ashkenazy

One of the weird coincidences of Sergei Prokofiev's life is that he should have died on precisely the same day as Joseph Stalin. After joyless decades of artistic repression and ruthless eradication of the intelligentsia, Soviet society had cause to hope that Stalin's death on March 5, 1953 might signal something a little more positive.

True, life in Soviet Russia was not exactly rosy even after 1953, and it is useless to speculate on what Prokofiev might have composed had he lived beyond the age of 61. But the burning question is this: why, when he had emigrated to the West in 1918 a few months after the 1917 October Revolution, did he then go back and settle with his family in a country where artists were perpetually under the eagle eye of a communist regime?

Sviatoslav Prokofiev, the composer's elder son, has some answers. "It's important to know," he says, "that Prokofiev was very Russian. He loved Russia. He had lots of happy memories of his youth there. His father ran an estate in the south. Prokofiev had lots of friends in the neighbouring villages, and he also had happy memories of his time at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. He first went back in 1927, simply because he was invited. He had a great success in St Petersburg and Moscow, and this produced a certain impression that augmented his decision to return again."

Vladimir Ashkenazy, who himself lived under the communist yoke until 1963 and will launch a series of Prokofiev's and Shostakovich's music in March, points to Prokofiev's experience in the West as a reason for his decision to return to Moscow.

"He was only semi-successful in the West," says Ashkenazy. "He didn't attain the degree of fame that would satisfy his ambitions. In the West, he tried to be even more avant-garde than he was naturally, and it didn't work. He was going along with the tastes of fashion, but it was against his nature. Then, when he returned to Russia, he wrote the ballet Romeo and Juliet, identified with it and produced an absolute masterpiece."

More masterpieces were to follow. In fact, many of the works for which Prokofiev has achieved lasting recognition - the scores for Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the children's classic Peter and the Wolf, the Seventh Piano Sonata, the epic opera War and Peace - were all written after his return to Russia. Being back in his homeland gave him a degree of security, even with all the diktats and dogma coming out of the Kremlin. During his exile years in America and Paris, he had been feted for his opera The Love for Three Oranges and had enjoyed his collaboration with Diaghilev on the ballets The Tale of the Buffoon and The Steel Step, but his career was unsteady.

Like Rachmaninoff, who also left Russia after the revolution, he was forced to earn much of his living by giving piano recitals and playing his own concertos. Both men preferred composing. Rachmaninoff was able to do so only sporadically after 1917, and Prokofiev must have realised that, quite aside from the emotional aspects of returning to his native country, there would be some financial stability as well. Like the subject of his Paris ballet The Prodigal Son, he would be welcomed back in the Soviet Union with open arms as a major propaganda coup.

From the material point of view, Prokofiev never had to look back after his final decision to return to Russia in 1936. By this time, he had a wife and two sons, Sviatoslav, born in 1924, Oleg in 1928. In Moscow, they were given a four-room apartment, comfortable by Soviet standards, and had a maid and a chauffeur-driven car. Sviatoslav went first to an Anglo-American school, then, when that was closed down, to a Russian one, later qualifying as an architect.

Whereas Shostakovich always seemed to be ducking and diving with the Soviet authorities, Prokofiev seemed able to remain aloof. The worst aspects of Stalin's regime did not impinge on them for the time being. "In the Thirties," says Sviatoslav, "there were many people among the intelligentsia who were in favour of communism, because, in theory, it was a very just system, but the practicalities hadn't been considered. They were a bit naive. I think that my father was also a little naive when he decided to return, above all because he didn't understand what was happening."

Ashkenazy thinks Prokofiev "kind of welcomed what was happening in Russia and wanted to see the brighter side. He didn't want to see the tragedy. With this welcome back into his country, he felt he should do what the country wanted him to do."

Hence his cantatas celebrating the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the revolution and the Hymn to Stalin. "But," says Ashkenazy, "it wasn't like an obligation to write the 20th anniversary Cantata. Some people say that he wanted to mock, but I don't think so. It's a great piece, one of his greatest achievements. His attitude was just to go along with the general flow."

But soon that general flow became distinctly choppy. In 1941, Prokofiev left his wife and family to live with a young woman he had met on holiday, Mira Mendelson, who was eventually to help him with the librettos of his operas Betrothal in a Monastery and The Story of a Real Man and with his ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower. Sviatoslav, Oleg and their mother, Lina, were left in Moscow.

Lina, who was Spanish, was constantly under suspicion in Moscow as a foreigner and presumed spy, and in 1948 was arrested, tried and committed to 20 years' hard labour "for treason". Suddenly, the realities of the paranoid Soviet Union had come to bear even on Prokofiev, but he was able to do nothing to alleviate his wife's plight. It must be remembered that 1948 was also the year in which he, along with Shostakovich and practically all the major and minor composers, were condemned by Stalin's notorious henchman, Andrey Zhdanov, for not toeing the Party line. Prokofiev was on a blacklist himself.

Somehow or other, Lina survived the labour camp, was allowed back to Moscow after eight years and eventually moved to Paris, dying only as recently as 1989. Despite all, she remained a fervent champion of Prokofiev's music, just as her son Sviatoslav is now, having recently seen through publication a massive two-volume Russian edition of his father's diaries from 1907 to 1933.

Sviatoslav is seeking "a very serious person to translate them into English - a good translator who can appreciate the special Prokofiev personality," which, in terms of the music he wrote, he recalls as "energetic, lyrical, original and always interesting". "As in the music, he could be a little brusque, but he was always sincere, sometimes tender."

Prokofiev's health, already failing in the Forties, never fully recovered after 1948. But his character was such that he would certainly have appreciated the irony of dying on the very same day as the dictator who had made his final years so troubled.

The BBC Philharmonic begins a Prokofiev festival in Manchester on Jan 31 (box office: 0161 907 9000). 'Papa, What If They Hang You For This?: Prokofiev and Shostakovich Under Stalin' begins at the South Bank on March 7.

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