Prokofiev and the Revival of Nationalism in Soviet Music

Sergei Prokofiev

SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) is generally recognized as one of the greatest of Russian composers. Working in a variety of genres, Prokofiev wrote for cinema, ballet, opera, and small ensembles in addition to composing symphonies. An avant-gardist during the early period of his career, Prokofiev came to embrace a role as a nationalist in music and would, in time, return to traditional themes just as he returned to his native country after sojourning abroad. One of the ironies of Russian cultural history is that some of the most gorgeous, most quintessentially Russian music — such works as Prokofiev’s scores for the films Lieutenant Kije (1934), Alexander Nevsky (1938), and Ivan the Terrible (1945) — would not have come into existence if not for the cultural realignment effected by the non-Russian Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin.

V.I. Lenin

Prokofiev, who developed a reputation as an experimenter with compositions like the Scythian Suite (1915), experienced the avant-garde milieu of western Europe before the Russian Revolution and completed commissions for the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev, who, however, rejected his first ballet because it was “non-Russian” and encouraged him to write music that was “national in character”1.

Prokofiev returned to Russia only to have the premieres of multiple works, including his first symphony, postponed by the political upheavals of 1917. Lenin’s ascent to power did not bode well for artistic freedom. The Bolshevik leader stated that “every artist takes it as his right to create freely, according to his ideal, whether it is good or not. There you have the ferment, the experimenting, the chaotic.” Lenin qualified these remarks, however: “But of course we are Communists. We must not drop our hands into our laps and allow the chaos to ferment as it chooses,” he clarified. “We must try consciously to guide this development and mould and determine the results.”2 Boris Schwarz, author of Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia: 1917-1970, depicts the situation that confronted Prokofiev and his cohort of artists:

Anatoly Lunacharsky

Many Russian artists could not agree with such a type of “guidance” and chose emigration. Composers, performers, and pedagogues left in great numbers, either because they felt no sympathy with the Bolshevik Revolution, or because they saw no future for their profession in a country torn by civil strife and bent on proletarian domination. The list of musicians who requested, and received, exit visas and decided to remain abroad is formidable; equally large is the number who left illegally. That Russian music could survive such a drain of talent testifies to the immense reservoir of innate musical gifts to be found in Russia. Strangely enough, the Soviet government did not seem unduly concerned about the exodus of artists. [Commissar of Education Anatoly] Lunacharsky was personally helpful in obtaining exit visas for some prominent musicians, as we know from the memoirs of Chaliapin, Grechaninov, and Prokofiev. One can feel a slight note of regret in Lunacharsky’s comment when he said to young Prokofiev in 1918, “You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way.” Lunacharsky’s trust proved justified: fifteen years later, Prokofiev resettled in Moscow.3

Sadly, Prokofiev cannot, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mikhail Bakunin, and Sergei Nilus, be included among the ranks of the great Russian anti-Semites. The composer accepted commissions from Jews, including the Zionist-oriented Zimro Ensemble, and took some interest in Jewish music in the United States; but an interesting passage from Prokofiev’s diary, written just days after the Russian expat had arrived in New York in 1918, warrants quotation:

Today is the Jewish Day of Judgment. I went to the synagogue, hoping to hear an aspect of singing new to me, some Jewish mumbling that would make an interesting impression. But there were only some clean-shaved bankers there in gleaming top hats listening to the monotonous reading of the rabbi. I grew bored and left, being reprimanded as I went out for having got up at the wrong moment.4

If only for business reasons, however, Prokofiev increasingly moved in Jewish company, as Nelly Kravetz relates:

Prokofiev’s first few months in the United States proved disenchanting. The Chicago production of his opera Love for Three Oranges hung in the air, and would not receive its premiere until 1921 — three years after the commission. The public success that he had experienced with his recitals was mediated by withering reviews, and did not convince him that America had been worth the trip. He sought new opportunities, and the commission from Zimro (however modest) came just in time. Plus Prokofiev unexpectedly found himself with three weeks of spare time in October 1919, following the completion of the orchestration of Love for three Oranges, and used it assemble the Overture on Hebrew Themes.

In agreeing to the project, Prokofiev might have suspected that a successful premiere would open musical doors, and likewise the wallets of American busi­ness magnates, many of them Jewish. Whether he took this into account upon accepting the commission is difficult to say. But after the great success of the Overture on Hebrew Themes at the Bohemian Club on February 2, 1920, and of its more prestigious performance at Carnegie Hall on April 24, 1919, Prokofiev established crucial ties to influential and rich benefactors of the arts, including those who had weight at the Chicago Opera and could decide the fate of Love for Three Oranges. These individuals included Mrs. Julius Rosenwald, whose brother-in-law was one of the bankrollers of the Chicago Opera. Prokofiev also met Harold Rosenthal, a powerful Chicago lawyer and acquaintance of Harold McCormick, the principal financier and chairman of the board of the Chicago Opera. Also in the social mix was Frank Leavitt, a professor at the University of Chicago and opera devotee.5

Returning to Paris, Prokofiev reconnected with the Ballets Russes and Igor Stravinsky, with whom he quarrelled. “For the most part contemptuous of what Les Six was producing, Prokofiev nevertheless sought success on Parisian terms,” writes Stephen Press. “He responded to the futurist trend, raising the ante of strident dissonance and textural activity in a symphony ‘made of iron and steel.’ But his plan backfired,” Press continues, and “bewildered the audience at its premier in 1925.” The Parisians, Prokofiev fretted, “are apt to be too easily bored. […] I was evidently no longer a sensation.”6 Prokofiev also toured the Soviet Union during the twenties and never lost his emotional attachment to the land of his birth.

Shifting political winds in the wake of Stalin’s displacement of Trotsky would facilitate the atmosphere in which Prokofiev would create his masterpieces after returning to Russia. Lunacharsky was replaced by the apparatchik Andrei Bubnov in 1929, following which the “historic” Party Resolution “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organizations” of 1932 signified, in Schwarz’s words, “the end of an era of flexibility, and inaugurated one of regimentation.”7 Schwarz elaborates on the cultural and political context of Prokofiev’s return to his homeland:

The Resolution of 1932 came at a time when Soviet music was in a state of crisis. A vicious campaign […] had discredited musical modernism by equating it with “bourgeois decadence”. It forced the withdrawal of several modern productions that were in the planning stage, among them Prokofiev’s Pas d’acier. The mood of the country was not geared to stylized experiment. On the contrary, there was a general retreat into rose-coloured “realism”.

Andrei Bubnov

As a result, advanced composers turned conventional, and conventional composers became commonplace. Young composers endeavoured to be inoffensive, and conservatism became a cherished virtue, while musical nationalism experienced a revival. But music merely reflected a general trend in changing Soviet attitudes during the 1930’s. Realizing that the plan for world revolution had failed — at least temporarily — Soviet leaders became avowed nationalists. Patriotism was no longer limited to pride in the “conquests of the Revolution” but was extended to include Russia’s historic past. In fact, the entire concept and teaching of history was reversed. The views of Mikhail Pokrovsky, until his death in 1932 the leading Soviet historian, were discarded as a vulgarization of Marxism and a distortion of Russian history. The glory of Russia was restored, the tsars re-evaluated, including Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. In literature, the new attitude produced a large number of historical novels and plays. In music, this mood was reflected in epic works like the symphonic cantata On the Field of Kulikovo (1939) by Yuri Shaporin, commemorating the battle with the Mongols in 1380, or the oratorio Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev, depicting the defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1242. The latter was originally a film directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1938) for which Prokofiev had written a stirring score.

The decade of the 1930’s also witnessed the emergence of what has been called a “new respectability” in Soviet life. On the home front, there was a revival of almost Victorian standards of morality, restoration of school discipline, and abandonment of many “progressive” innovations.8

“Jewish subject matter, though officially permitted, was not desirable and potentially risky for composers,” adds Kravetz9.

Schwarz describes prodigal Prokofiev’s return to the bosom of Mother Russia:

Prokofiev’s mastery was such that he could write “accessible” music without lowering its quality. He had done it in his opera The Love for Three Oranges, a commission from Chicago, where he took into account the “American taste”. He was ready to do the same for Soviet audiences as he wrote in 1934, “In the Soviet Union music is addressed to millions of people who formerly had little or no contact with music. It is this new mass audience that the modern Soviet composer must strive to reach.” […]

Despite all rationalizations, some of Prokofiev’s newer works were received with indifference, others even remained unpublished and unperformed. […]

But outweighing these failures were a number of masterpieces that added new lustre to Prokofiev’s fame. Suffice it to mention Lieutenant Kije (1934), the ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935-36), the children’s tale Peter and the Wolf (1934), the Second Violin Concerto (1935), the score to Alexander Nevsky (1939). Generally speaking, there is greater warmth and more spontaneous expressiveness in Prokofiev’s musical idiom of the 1930’s. It was undoubtedly the effect of his confrontation with the “new” Soviet audiences; the problem of reaching the people was constantly in his mind, as he expressed it in 1937, “Music in our country has become the heritage of vast masses of people. Their artistic taste and demands are growing with amazing speed. And this is something the Soviet composer must take into account in each new work.”

It was this desire to compose music in his homeland, for the Russian people, that explains in part his decision, in 1933, to settle in Moscow. It was a decision dictated by nostalgia rather than politics, for Prokofiev was essentially non-political. At the time, he was in the midst of a creative crisis: his career in the West was stagnant, and his style was no longer considered trend-setting in modern music. He confided to a French critic, Serge Moreux, in 1933, “The air of foreign lands does not inspire me because I am Russian, and there is nothing more harmful to me than to live in exile … I must again immerse myself in the atmosphere of my homeland … I must hear Russian speech and talk with the people dear to me. This will give me what I lack here, for their songs are my songs … I’m afraid of falling into academicism. Yes, my friend, I am going home.”

Lina Prokofiev

It was Russia that beckoned him, not the Soviet regime nor Marxism. The last twenty years of his life, spent “at home”, were not cloudless: there were failures, brutal disappointments [such as his wife Lina’s imprisonment in a gulag in 1948] and unjustified criticism. But there were also warm response, sincere admiration, and that intangible flow of inspiration filtered through people and landscape, language and tradition. Here, his music acquired a quality of lyric expansiveness, of deepened humanism that created a new bond of communication with his audiences.10

Prostituted though his Alexander Nevsky music, for example, might have been for Stalin’s objective of inspiring patriotism and anti-German sentiment in the Russian people in advance of the impending conflict with Hitler’s Germany, the genius and glory of Slavic man and the beauty of an individual artist’s undisguised love for his nation shines through it all.


  2. Schwarz, Boris. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia: 1917-1970. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972, p. 19.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Kravetz, Nelly. “I Must Be the Only Jewish Composer! Prokofiev and Jewish Music”:
  5. Ibid.
  6. Press, Stephen D. Prokofiev’s Ballets for Diaghilev. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006, p. 205.
  7. Schwarz, Boris. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia: 1917-1970. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972, pp. 109-110.
  8. Ibid., p. 115.
  9. Kravetz, Nelly. “I Must Be the Only Jewish Composer! Prokofiev and Jewish Music”:
  10. Schwarz, Boris. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia: 1917-1970. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972, pp. 117-118.

* * *

Source: Aryan Skynet

Previous post

USS Liberty Truth Campaign, part 2

Next post

Global Rat-Perch: Jewish Misdirection in the Work of Michel Chossudovsky

Notify of
Inline Feedback
View all comments