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The Hammer, the Sickle, and the Christian Scientist

Another amazing side of the great Serge Prokofiev.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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Diaries 1924-1933: The Prodigal Son
Serge Prokofiev, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips
(Cornell University Press, 1,125 pages, $60)

Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev
By Simon Morrison
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $26)

UNTIL RECENTLY, outstanding composer-diarists have been countable on the fingers of one foot. A possible exception is Tchaikovsky, but no one would value the latter’s diarizing for its own sake. It warrants attention purely for the limited light that it sheds on his musical masterpieces and his—predominantly hostile—views of other musicians (he regarded Brahms, for example, as “a giftless bastard”). Composer-critics have been fairly numerous (Schumann, Berlioz, Debussy, Fauré), and composer-aestheticians still more numerous (Monteverdi, Gluck, Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, Vaughan Williams, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Copland). Several composers have attempted, with substantial artistic success, travel reportage (Haydn, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns). Nonetheless the compositional equivalent of a Pepys, a Boswell, a John Evelyn, a James Agate, a Harold Nicolson, or an André Gide simply failed to appear. Perhaps the very act of composing—which, even at its most disciplined, theory-laden, and self-conscious, comes closer to automatic writing than to most nonfiction—usually militates against that impassive discernment, that surgical enthusiasm for contemplating others’ lives, which a worthwhile diarist must demonstrate for years on end. 

Usually, but, as the case of Serge Prokofiev now shows us, not entirely. It would be ludicrous to imply that Prokofiev the newly unearthed diarist will supersede Prokofiev the composer. The best of his purely musical achievements are too well established in audiences’ hearts for any such supersession to be tenable. (Hence the shortage of critical commentary on him till after the Soviet Union fell. Like Puccini, he possessed such winning ways with mainstream ticket-buyers that he never needed an army of proselytizers.) But it can be said that the Prokofiev diaries, now that they are available in full, will comprehensively enrich our understanding of the man; and that few major musicians in any epoch have handled words with greater assurance than he. Volume three of the diaries has lately been released in English, and provokes astonishment at once for the detail that it furnishes and for the assiduity—authorial as well as editorial—that it represents. 

SO COMPREHENSIVELY unpleasing is the self-portrait it supplies (not so much “warts and all,” as warts to the exclusion of nearly every other feature) that it will prompt from most readers the sentiment epitomized in a recent New Yorker cartoon caption: “My desire to be well-informed clashes with my desire to stay sane.” As can only be expected of one with an I.Q. at mastermind level, manifesting itself by no means exclusively in music—during 1914 in St. Petersburg he had defeated chess grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca, an event he recounted with understandable complacency in his diaries’ first volume—Prokofiev responded to most of his contemporaries with a derision that he seldom bothered to hide. 

The diaries abound in put-downs of colleagues, and even the few compliments are usually back-handed. Arthur Honegger, born in 1892 (and thus a year younger than Prokofiev himself), recurs as a target for Prokofiev’s scorn: Prokofiev refers to his tone poem Pacific 231 as “a prime example of how something interesting can be made without any actual music.” Later Prokofiev finds Honegger’s piano concerto to be “an extremely boring work for the pianist, and technically elementary. I said it would be a good new concerto for Stravinsky to add to his repertoire.” (Prokofiev blew hot and cold over Stravinsky, never able to dismiss him outright—in 1932 he describes having sent a telegram to Stravinsky on the latter’s 50th birthday—but was openly scathing about his rival’s limited pianistic technique, so different from Prokofiev’s virtuoso splendor at the keyboard.) Even Ravel—“a hopeless conductor” who “[can] barely play the piano”—does not elude mockery. When Ravel utters, to critic Boris de Schloezer, a lament to the effect that “you peoples of the Byzantine culture will never understand us Westerners,” Prokofiev cannot resist butting in at the great Frenchman’s expense: “especially as Schloezer is Belgian.” 

Here is Prokofiev on a trio written by the Brazilian-born, Paris-domiciled Heitor Villa-Lobos: “he lacks a sense of flow and I am not sure how worthwhile the actual material is. If he were 22, I would say without hesitation that he has the makings of a significant composer, but as he is already 32 [actually 37] all one can do is hold back from too harsh a judgment.” Mild stuff compared with his assessment of the ballet Les Biches by the young Francis Poulenc: “it all lacks form (the whole thing consists of four-bar phrases tacked on to other four-bar phrases to which they bear no relationship), there is no development, and the instrumentation, though attractive, is in the last analysis a zero.” He dismisses Darius Milhaud’s Oresteia as “a fraud. The only good bits are those with declamation, shouting and percussion, that is to say where there is no actual music.” At a concert devoted to music by Milhaud’s hero, the recently deceased Erik Satie: “It was all I could do to last the first half, so hopelessly tedious and limp it was.” Nor did painters arouse any more respect in him. About ballet décor by Maurice Utrillo, Prokofiev is caustic: “Now that he has become completely mad people are showing interest in him and it is considered chic to present work in his settings. But as a matter of fact, what sort of settings are they? Utrillo is no longer capable of producing anything himself.”

AFTER EVERY allowance is made for Prokofiev’s awkward domestic circumstances—in self-imposed banishment from Mother Russia, mostly based in Paris, seething at unhappy memories of his 1918-1920 American sojourn, disappointed in his hopes of ensuring a complete staging for his opera The Fiery Angel, and obliged to tour almost without end in order to live, since his compositions brought him precious little money—the truth remains that more than 1,000 pages of such vituperation is about 990 pages more than most readers will feel comfortable examining. When Prokofiev actually praises someone (he correctly observes of Vladimir Horowitz that “his gifts as a pianist come straight from God”), the effect is all the more remarkable for its rarity.

Among the few other passages in which Prokofiev’s sneering tone abates are his discussions of Christian Science, to which in his early 30s he became addicted. Having long since forsaken his tepid juvenile allegiance to Russian Orthodoxy, he visited in Paris during June 1924 Caroline Getty, an American practitioner of “the Science.” Mrs. Getty so impressed him that he tried to pay her 30 francs for the consultation instead of the requested 20. His subsequent adulation for Christian Science took decidedly bizarre forms. We find him maintaining in August 1929 that “all the work I had done…on countering egocentricity, the desire to compete, and envy had borne fruit,” a finding belied on almost every other diary page he ever wrote. Christian Science wholly failed to dispel the headaches, neuralgia, skin rashes, and heart trouble of which Prokofiev repeatedly complained. (In November 1930, he reports having actually collapsed and lost consciousness twice in one day, which anyone save Christian Scientists might have interpreted as a foreshadowing of the cerebral hemorrhages that from the late 1940s afflicted him.) Yet his creed’s preaching upon the need for detachment and upon the ultimate unreality not of evil alone, but also of suffering, supplied Prokofiev with an objective correlative—or, in plain language, an alibi—for that cold-bloodedness he had started exhibiting long before. After all, if suffering fundamentally does not exist, then how could Prokofiev possibly have been guilty of ever inflicting it? He behaved with all too complete fidelity to Kipling’s prescription: “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” Retrospective medical diagnoses are notoriously problematic, but if it were asserted that Prokofiev had Asperger’s, few would voice intense disagreement. When his father died, he could produce no more filial an obituary notice than “Did I love him? I do not know…he served me, his only son, unstintingly, and it was thanks to his tireless work that I was provided for so long with all my material necessities.” If his temperament had been much more reptilian, one suspects, he would have begun laying eggs. 

Christian Science (and his own finest music) aside, Prokofiev showed genuine warmth only in his enduring patriotism. His philologist friend Boris Demchinsky greeted his 1918 departure from Russian soil with the solemn words “You are running away from history, and history will not forgive you.” The story of Prokofiev’s exile is, in part, the story of how Prokofiev coped with this stern admonition weighing on him. Everything the Soviets could do to entice him back, short of kidnapping him, they did. Particularly important in this connection was Anatoly Lunacharsky, the (ahem) “People’s Commissar for Enlightenment,” who had over most Bolsheviks the advantage of being personally civilized, and who shortly after the Revolution had unavailingly urged Prokofiev to stay put. In 1925 Lunacharsky sent to Paris an agent, B.B. Krasin, specifically to persuade Prokofiev and his wife Lina, alias “Ptashka,” to come home. (Prokofiev described Krasin as tall, “with prominent cheekbones, coarse-featured…with a faint air of the seminary about him. He speaks simply, but at the same [time] with a conscious effort to use language well, which causes him to wrinkle his nose.”) Nothing came of the appeal then, but Prokofiev visited the U.S.S.R. in 1927, and thrice more over the next nine years. Meanwhile the Soviets extended similar blandishments to writer Maxim Gorky, who did permanently go back in 1932, not before goading Prokofiev into a characteristic diary vignette: “He is a heavy smoker and coughs continuously, a short dry cough, disagreeable and even frightening to hear like a dog barking, a continual reminder that he has only a quarter of his lungs left.” 

THE DIARIES end in 1933, three years before Prokofiev’s return to his homeland endowed the parable of the Prodigal Son (already the theme for a Diaghilev-directed ballet by him) with an extra biographical significance. Serving—however cautiously, factitiously, and at times reluctantly—as music’s New Soviet Man, rivaled but never surpassed by Shostakovich, demanded such psychic strength on Prokofiev’s part as to preclude further sustained literary self-analysis, even if Uncle Joe’s slave empire had not effectively rendered such self-analysis unfeasible. Others today, secure in their own confidence that they would never have made Prokofiev-style compromises, may vociferate against Prokofiev’s post-1936 political declarations if they want. Still, even they should take thought first. It was indeed shameful to laud Stalinism, as did Prokofiev and Shostakovich, through simple fear of the torture-chamber and the NKVD. But it was 1,000 times more shameful to laud Stalinism, as did FDR and Beatrice Webb, without the smallest likelihood of torture-chamber and NKVD to serve as an excuse. And what punishment would be adequate retribution for those—the Christopher Hills, the Eric Hobsbawms, the Paul Prestons—who have lauded Stalinism (and more especially the 1930s’ Spanish Reds) in our own time, with no risk of any temporal inconvenience whatsoever? Surely there are far worthier targets of modern censoriousness in this sphere than a mere musician?

Where Prokofiev can very reasonably be reproached is less for his dutiful efforts to appease Soviet thugs—efforts including a choral-orchestral paean composed for Stalin’s 60th birthday—than for the collapse of his marriage: a collapse predictable from the late 1920s, but delayed until after the couple had resumed Russian residence. In his diaries he says surprisingly little about his relationship with his wife, except when recounting the numerous concerts they gave together. Lina (née Codina), born in Madrid (1897) to a Spanish father and a Ukrainian mother, had hopes of world recognition as a soprano—her admirers included Rachmaninoff—but no recordings of her performances survive, and the consensus of hearers is that stage fright wrecked whatever chances she had of wider acclaim apart from her husband. Her tale is fully told in Lina and Serge, the fascinating, at times hair-raisingly vivid new account by Princeton-based musicologist Simon Morrison. While Lina’s own interest in Christian Science predated his, she seems overall to have been worldlier, more sensible than the narcissistic Serge; she took considerably more persuading than he did about the merits of living in the workers’ paradise. Some of her insights into Soviet rule derived from the upsetting 1934 experience of two telephone calls from Serge (he was touring Leningrad while she remained in Paris), during which secret police eavesdroppers repeatedly made conversation impossible:

Operators made a point of allowing them to talk when the connection was poor, but interrupted them when it became clearer. Serge’s words were drowned out by cackles of laughter from those listening in.…on November 19, Serge telephoned her unexpectedly, only to hear the line go dead…“I can’t hear you!” she yelled into the receiver, at which point the eavesdropper announced, “You were perfectly audible, I just decided to cut you off.”

Lina resented Soviet life from the beginning, lacking Serge’s ability to ignore, while in creation’s throes, the reality-based community’s demands on his attention. Admittedly, even Serge noticed problems when allies like theatrical producers Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mutnïkh kept disappearing; yet he continued to be (in Stalin’s telling words) “our Prokofiev,” whereas Lina increasingly felt herself to be an encumbrance. At first the regime permitted Lina and Serge some foreign travel, but only on condition that their two sons, Svyatoslav and Oleg, remain at home as hostages. 

Then Prokofiev, aged 47, met a literature student named Mira Mendelson, aged 23, who eagerly proclaimed her belief in Prokofiev’s unflawed genius. This being a belief that Prokofiev fully shared, they became lovers. Mira, not Lina, accompanied Serge in the 1941 retreat from Moscow. After the war, Lina’s plight grew worse: Because Serge had never taken the precaution of registering with any Soviet consulate his 1923 marriage to Lina, the authorities now ruled that the marriage had been invalid all along. Serge unilaterally petitioned to “divorce” Lina, and proceeded to “marry” Mira. 

Less than a month later (February 1948), at the very time that cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov formally and publicly started gunning for Serge, goons arrested Lina and accused her of spying. (Prokofiev greeted the news of Lina’s detention with the words “What have I done?” Even at this time of extreme marital crisis, he operated on the principle of “It’s all about me.”) Not for another eight years would she know freedom. Meanwhile, preparatory to her incarceration in the gulag, Lina underwent nine months of questioning, at first in the Lubyanka. 

Interrogators spat on her, kicked her, and threatened her children. Needles were stuck into her arms and legs. For the first three months, she was deprived of sleep, pushing her to the brink of madness. Two of every five days she spent crouched in a cell for hours on end until her legs shook and buckled from the pain…the screams of other inmates echoed in the central square. Hers would be louder, one of her torturers growled into her ear.

Initially Lina thought that Serge too had been jailed. An understandable conclusion, quite apart from Zhdanov’s anti-Serge ravings—maintaining a helpmeet surnamed Mendelson could not be called a particularly wise career move in the increasingly anti-Jewish atmosphere of Stalin’s old age—but, it so happens, incorrect. To quote Professor Morrison again: “the composer spent his final years relatively secluded in his dacha…a series of strokes having rendered him incapable of composing for more than an hour or two a day, bringing his life to a bathetically premature end. He confessed to Mira…in the last week of his life that his ‘soul hurt.’” For his audacity in dying on the same day as Stalin (March 5, 1953), he missed out on the front-page Pravda coverage that would otherwise have been his. Meanwhile Lina moldered at the Abez labor camp till 1956, and in the Soviet Union itself till she managed to escape to London in 1974. She died there in 1989, 10 months before the Berlin Wall’s collapse changed Europe forever.

Amazingly, she never ceased to show respect and affection when speaking of her peccant spouse. Without knowing it, Prokofiev had exemplified W.B. Yeats’ dictum: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life or of the work.” Repeatedly in his music—perhaps above all in the ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, in the “Field of the Dead” section from the cantata Alexander Nevsky, and in the wartime piano sonatas—he exhibited an emotional range that, outside music, he never conveyed and probably could not feel. Though the perfection of Prokofiev’s best work can have been meager comfort for those who had to suffer the consequences of his day-to-day behavior, it is the only aspect of him from which we ordinary music-lovers, six decades after his death, can lastingly benefit. If Lina, despite everything, continued to cherish and honor her husband as an artist, the least we can do is share her priorities. 

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About the Author

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, 2012).