Sergei Prokofiev plaque, Moscow

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There are names that are more than mere names. They are worlds unto themselves. For me Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is one of them. All the stranger, then, to walk past the building at 14/16 Zemlyanoi Val Street in which Prokofiev lived from 1936 until 1941. It’s a pretty down-to-earth place that houses, among other things, a foreign currency exchange booth, a beauty salon and a flower store. It’s one of those imposing buildings erected in the Stalin era that look like they may just last forever minus a day – rather, alas, like Stalin’s influence in Russia. Not much for the eye to look at, but not going anywhere soon. The fact that it is located on the massive and massively busy Garden Ring Road doesn’t help. The sound and air pollution is commensurate to a place besieged by automobiles night and day, 24/7. You can see the dust and/or exhaust material fairly dripping down the plaque.

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Of course it wasn’t like this when the composer lived here – not the stores, not the noise, not the traffic. It was apparently a good place to work. Judging by chronologies of Prokofiev’s compositions, he wrote several of his most enduring and best known pieces in the relatively short time he called this building home. Some include: Romeo and Juliet (ballet, 1938); his Piano Sonata No. 6 in A-major for piano (1939-40); and the score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky (1938), as well as the cantata and many songs that come out of it. In 1937-38 Prokofiev wrote incidental music for a production of Hamlet by theater director Sergei Radlov in Radlov’s own studio theater in Leningrad. I found some anonymously-penned information about that particular piece on a Voice of Russia webpage (I’ve edited out a typo or two in the text below):

“In 1937 Prokofiev’s longtime friend and chess partner Sergei Radlov, a drama director, made up his mind to produce Hamlet and asked Prokofiev to write the music. ‘In a letter Radlov, whom I respect as a great authority on Shakespeare, detailed his wishes, which so reflected my own that I immediately got down to work,’ Prokofiev wrote in his diary.
“Working on the score, Prokofiev always had in mind that the thing would be played by a small house orchestra and sung by actors, not by professional singers. When writing Ophelia’s song he threw in a number of English and Scottish tunes that were popular when Shakespeare was still around…
“Prokofiev’s music was a formidable contribution to Radlov’s effort. The May 1938 premiere was a roaring success and a year later Prokofiev was already weighing an opera about Hamlet and even consulted with Radlov about the libretto. However, the idea never materialized…
“Stage music never lasts long, usually going out with the production it is written for. Prokofiev’s Hamlet was a notable exception. In 1954, already after Prokofiev’s death, conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky put together a nine-piece suite and played it in concert…”

One will also note that the years Prokofiev spent in this building more or less coincided with what history has come to call the Great Purges. Thousands, tens-of-thousands of Prokofiev’s colleagues and peers would be arrested and disappear in the prison camps in these years. It is one of the more uncomfortable pages in Prokofiev’s biography that he wrote a handful of panegyrics to Joseph Stalin. At least two were written right here – Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution (1936-37), and Zdravitsa, a cantata written on the occasion of Stalin’s 60th birthday (1939). Prokofiev was the recipient of no less than six Stalin Prizes, the highest award a Soviet civilian could receive. And then there is the curiosity of Prokofiev dying the same day as Stalin. It meant that nobody paid any attention to Prokofiev’s passing at all.

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