This Week in Music History: The death of Prokofiev (1953)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? The curtain falls on Prokofiev’s life, but only paper flowers were tossed – all the roses had been seized for Stalin…

Allegro inquieto

The following works of Soviet composers at present on the programmes of concert organizations are to be removed from the repertory and may not be played: Prokofiev: Symphonic Suite “1941,” Ode on the End of the War, Festive Poem, Cantata on the 30th Anniversary of the October Revolution, Ballad of an Unknown Boy, Piano Sonata No. 6.

So said an official decree of February 1948, part of the artistic purge overseen by the politician Andrei Zhdanov. This bizarre selection of works included “socialist realist” pieces in which Prokofiev had explicitly tried to please the Soviet authorities, alongside a few other perplexing choices such as the Sixth Piano Sonata.

Why this piano sonata? It’s unclear. It was from 1939. Parts of it may well be intended to evoke the harshness of the war then breaking out, but there isn’t an explicit political theme.

Stalin portrait
Portrait of Josef Stalin

It seems that the list of banned works was deliberately arbitrary: the intent was to scare concert programmers away from putting on any of Prokofiev’s music at all. At almost exactly the same time that his works were banned, his first wife, Lina, was arrested and sent to a labor camp.

Curious, terrifying, and quite typical of the Soviet authorities under Stalin in the post-war years. The ban was lifted a year later. Lina, though, wasn’t released until 1956, by which time Prokofiev and Stalin were both three years dead.

Allegretto

Prokofiev had spent the war years being quietly productive. He penned some propagandistic works in support of the army, but also found time for many abstract compositions, including not just the Sixth Sonata but the Seventh and Eighth as well, the Second String Quartet, the Flute Sonata (later arranged as the Second Violin Sonata), and the Fifth Symphony.

Serge Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovitch and Aram Khatchatourian (ca. 1945) black and white
Serge Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovitch and Aram Khatchatourian (ca. 1945)

It was after the war, when the authorities started scrutinizing artists and their works more closely, that the troubles really began.

Tempo di valzer—Lentissimo

Much of Prokofiev’s music, including the middle two movements of the Sixth Sonata, is strangely inscrutable. It is brilliantly accomplished, and often feels emotionally intense, but what emotion is it, being expressed? It’s music that is profoundly hard to read.

His politics were also ambiguous, but perhaps not put together with the same genius as his music. He was slow to grasp the true nature of the threat that he and his fellow composers faced in the years after the war. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich said that Prokofiev “had always been a great child, of astonishing naivety.”

Photograph of the young Prokofiev seated at piano
Photograph of the young Prokofiev

When it came to it, though, Prokofiev was contrite. He wrote a letter of apology to the Union of Composers, agreeing to write in a less “formalistic” style and expressing gratitude “for the clear guidelines.”

Vivace

Prokofiev really does seem to have attempted to change his musical language in line with what the authorities wanted. Many of his late works, moreover, are further contributions to the “socialist realism” movement. The Seventh Symphony of 1951–2 was his final completed work. His last years were also colored by severe illness.

Prokofiev died aged 61 on March 5, 1953, on exactly the same day, and at almost exactly the same time, as Joseph Stalin, the man who had made his final years so uncomfortable. For that reason, his death was barely reported, and there weren’t even enough flowers left for his funeral. They had to make do with paper ones.


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