Revolutions all round
Sergey Prokofiev: Diaries (1915-1922) - Behind the Mask
Edited by Anthony Phillip
Unfair as it might be, Russian composers and artists of the 20th century seem to be unable to escape from their political context, their every gossipy aside or "hidden meaning" scrutinised for historical import. Richard Strauss's Nazi sympathies or Elgar's imperialist jingoism fail to elicit the column inches dwelling on Shos takovich's was-he-or-wasn't-he-a-believer relationship with Stalinism.
However, the historical detail in the second volume of Sergey Prokofiev's diaries (for a review of the first, Prodigious Youth, see NS of 22 January 2007) is so intriguing that it is hard not to be unfair. The modernist (or as he would have preferred, neoclassicist) composer emigra ted in 1918 but, after a few visits from 1927 onwards, settled in the USSR in 1935. In 1937 he composed a Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, so it's worth finding out exactly what his private thoughts were on the event. "Farewell Bolsheviks! Farewell 'comrades'! From today it will no longer be a badge of infamy to wear a tie and no one will tread on my toes," he writes on 16 May 1918 after boarding the steamer out.
Yet the diaries also make clear inadvertently that this was hardly a response to cruelty or oppression. Prokofiev arranged a meeting with Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Bolshevik "commissar of enlightenment", to express his desire to emigrate, and got flattery and a no-questions-asked passport in return, something that his countrymen would have found unimaginable 20 years later. Meanwhile, for all their disdain for "commissars", friends and collaborators of his such as Alexandre Benois or Vsevolod Meyerhold were paid employees of the communist government. It would seem that Prokofiev, like other members of the Russian intelligentsia, had far more quarrel with the chaos and popular energies of revolution than he would with the "stability and order" promised by Joseph Stalin. Revealingly, when asked in a (hilarious) interview with US customs whether he was in sympathy with the Bolsheviks, he replied: "No, because they took my money away."
That he was acquainted with both the neoclassicist Benois and the increasingly futurist Meyerhold is a pointer to Prokofiev's peculiar status at this point - being either lumped in by critics with an artistic "return to order" or condemned for dissonance and nonconformism. These must be the only diaries that exhibit an interest in the Italian futurists' "noise-machines" (he visits Marinetti et al in Milan) as well as a fondness for the late-Romantic melodrama of Rachmaninov, with whom he spends much time in the United States. It is remarkable, now that Prokofiev's works are so uncontroversial, how audiences were affronted by them in the 1910s, frequently booing and hooting. "Either this is not music, or I am not a musician," declares one of his opponents. Frequently his detractors seemed to think the compositions were jokes being played on them, and their denunciations were as savage in Chicago as they were in Petrograd.
Nonetheless, the historical rather than the musical minutiae are what seems most valuable in this book, from pondering the assassination of Rasputin (a good subject for an opera, he notes) to eyewitness accounts of revolution. The composer missed October 1917, but he was directly (albeit unintentionally) caught up in the February uprisings that overthrew the tsar. The descriptions here of street fighting and police charges have an intense clarity, irrespective of his fear of the "mob". It does all become a little more prosaic upon his emigration, and his responses to the American landscape are not es pecially insightful: he attends a motor race, is unimpressed with "beautiful, flat-chested and unresponsive" American women, and has an evening on top of the Woolworth Building.
What Prokofiev did have was an extremely dry wit, which occasionally results in some fine, bitchy one-liners, from his disdain for Mahler's Seventh Symphony ("like kissing a stillborn child") to his fear of the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky ("I always wonder: is he going to hit me, not for any particular reason, just because?") to his pride at being proclaimed "best-dressed man in Chicago". At his best he has a gift for the surprising phrase, the unexpected insight and the occasional laugh-out-loud bon mot. It appears much of his time was spent reading German idealist philosophy and "destroying" or "annihilating" various unfortunates at chess.
This is an impressively edited work, with Anthony Phillips's footnotes, indexing and appendices all scrupulously detailed and informative, albeit nowhere near as politically impartial as they think they are. At the same time, one can't help but wish in places that he'd adopted a rather harsher editorial approach. Particularly in the later diaries, the composer's lapidary prose fails to enliven interminable descriptions of parties, romantic indecisiveness and suchlike - the editor could have made heavy cuts here to produce a significantly less unwieldy and laborious book. The subtitle Behind the Mask is also a strangely inappropriate choice, implying that the diaries offer some kind of insight either into the creative process, or into some hidden emotional depths beneath the elegant surface. On the contrary, for all his assiduous reading of Schopenhauer, and regardless of his obvious brilliance, Pro ko fiev comes across as arch and sometimes charming, but not exactly overburdened with intelligence or sophistication.
The title of the review by Ben Hecht that appears in the appendix - "Fantastic Lollypops" - seems more apposite for these occasionally sparkling, sometimes histo rically intriguing, and decidedly oversized jottings. Prokofiev himself might have preferred it that way.