Tag Archives: Sergei Prokofiev

Dmitry Shostakovich monument, Moscow

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Yes, it’s a bit comics-like. Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crude. But I think all those aspects suit the subject – Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975).
There’s no point in trying to determine what artist suffered most during the Soviet period. As harsh as it may sound, that would be like trying to determine which grain of sand on the beach is the biggest or smallest. Just try and figure. If you were going to take on that pointless task you would obviously start with those who were tortured to death, then those who were “just” killed, then those who were “allowed to die,” and then you would go on from there. Shostakovich, thank God, was able to live out his life. He didn’t live it out untouched and he didn’t live it out the way he would have chosen. There’s no way of knowing if he was so worn down by the battles and humiliations that he ran out of gas before he might have under different circumstances, a month short of his 69th birthday. But he did live, and he lived to see his work recognized in his  homeland and abroad. That’s no small thing.
As I pointed out in an earlier post on this site, Shostakovich quickly gained fame for his striking, unusual compositions from a very early age. His ground-breaking opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on the dark novella of sex and murder by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932. It was staged in the composer’s hometown of St. Petersburg in January of 1934 at the Maly Leningrad Opera Theater and was received enthusiastically. However, a notorious attack on the composer and his work appeared in Pravda more or less on the second anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” it cast a dark cloud over Shostakovich that lasted for decades. Wikipedia has a nice story about how that article came about. It’s worth repeating here:
Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was ‘white as a sheet’ when he went to take his bow after the third act.”
A second public “denunciation” came in 1948 when Shostakovich was named in one of the infamous Zhdanov decrees, this one attacking so-called “formalism” in Soviet music. The document called out Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, following a similar document that in 1946 had attacked the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as well as several theater critics. The composers were not officially “rehabilitated” until 1958, although Stalin himself loosened the screws in 1949 shortly before sending Shostakovich to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York.
One cannot be sure whether this was a positive thing for Shostakovich or not. He was, thereby, forced into the position of publicly praising to the world his de facto jailers, the very individuals and system that had tormented him for 15 years. Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the pressure on the composer again, but he never quite escaped the long, hard hand of the Soviet government. He was essentially forced to join the Communist Party in 1960 and from then on he often had to sing its praises in speeches and in his music. It is commonly felt that Shostakovich suffered as much as any artist who survived the excesses of the Soviet period. Of course, his great and sweeping oeuvre stands as a testament to his talent and his inner strength. The art won in the end, thanks to the tenacity of the individual.

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All of this is evident in the monument that Georgy Frangulyan erected in Shostakovich’s memory on the steps of the Moscow House of Music on May 28, 2015. It was the first monument commemorating the great artist in Moscow.
Frangulyan created the image of a deeply private individual, one who is obviously used to withstanding suffering. It may have bent him, it may have distorted his facial expression, but this is the figure of one who has weathered whatever came his way. The hard, exaggerated furrows in his brow bear witness to that. The head is down; it cares nothing about what is going on all around. Passersby, Moscow traffic – none of it exists for him. He is in his own world. The legs are crossed tightly, another sign of a man closing himself off to the world. Chances are his right hand is conducting some snippet of music that this he hears in his head. But it is not a public conductor’s gesture, not one that would be employed from a podium before an orchestra and a hall full of people. This is a private gesture, a small, approximate gesture, one that means something only to Shostakovich. It is, perhaps, his way of personally “hearing” his music with his body. From some angles, as in the second photo below, the hand may be “thinking” about playing notes on a piano. Of course, from other angles, it might be the beginning of him raising his arm to fend of blows – of any kind that might be thrown at him. (See the second and third photos above.) I like this aspect of Frangulyan’s sculpture – the arm gesture is very specific, yet open to interpretation. It is one of the things that give the sculpture life.
It is worth thinking for a moment about the significance of a monument like this appearing in Moscow today (just over a year ago). Increasingly, we are subjected to comments, actions and even attacks from Russian cultural authorities that harken back to the age of the Zhdanov decrees and even the denunciations in the press from the 1930s. We are constantly told by politicians, by media figures and by official patriots, that life in Russia has never been better, that the country is great, its history is great, and there are no problems aside from those that have been created by evil outside forces and the nasty people who support them for evil reasons. Don’t get me wrong. We have not returned – yet – to the exact atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, but we are living in a time that has borrowed that era’s intonations and general methods.
To see this harried, hunkered, set-upon image of Shostakovich today is to set eyes upon a contemporary. I don’t know if any of the authorities who surely beamed happily the day of the unveiling have any idea about this or not. But it is a fact. When you stand behind Shostakovich here and gaze out on the endless stream of cars racing past on the Garden Ring Road, you realize that contemporary Moscow is as alien to you as it is to this image of Shostakovich.

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Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Walt Disney, Los Angeles

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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) were three giants of Russian music in the 20th century. Their lives and professional paths snaked in and around each other in many different ways in many different countries of the world, although none of them ever became particularly close. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff entered the same alien, but attractive, universe of Hollywood and Los Angeles as a result of Hitler’s rise in Germany. (Their shy dance in space and time began when Rachmaninoff’s family moved to St. Petersburg in 1882, the year of Stravinsky’s birth in that city.) Prokofiev seemed to move in an orbit farther from the other two. In fact, more or less as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were settling in Los Angeles, Prokofiev made his last visit there before returning to the Soviet Union. There is, however, one name that brings them all together, albeit briefly and abstractly. Today we look at a place that was a mutual point of interest for all three of the composers: Walt Disney’s home at 4053 Woking Way.
Prokofiev, as it turns out, is the closest of all three to this topic. He met with Disney in 1938 after having seen and loved the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). At this point the great filmmaker was already fast at work on Fantasia (eventually released in 1940), the animated feature film that would set the standard for its genre for decades to come. Prokofiev was one of those whose work he thought might suit his plans. As such, he invited the composer to his house for a chat. According to Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image, Prokofiev even left us a brief record of that visit:
It’s very warm here,” Prokofiev wrote back to his family in Russia, “I’ve forgotten what an overcoat is. and the trees are covered with oranges and pineapples. Most American films are made in Hollywood and they build whole houses, castles and even cities of cardboard for them. Today I went to a filming session. A big tall warehouse had been turned into the square of an old town and people galloped through it on horses. I have also been to the house of Mickey Mouse’s papa, that is, the man who first thought up the idea of sketching him.”
So there we have it – Prokofiev visiting this house, the home of Mickey Mouse’s father. But, in fact, there is much more to the story and fortunately Disney himself chose to tell some of it. Even though none of Prokofiev’s music made it into Fantasia, Disney was transfixed by one particular work – Peter and the Wolf. He would end up making a film of it in 1946, and it would be nearly as popular and famous as Fantasia. So memorable was the meeting of the two men, that Disney had himself recorded telling the story of how Prokofiev, who spoke no English, came and played for the host, who spoke no Russian. The piano at which Prokofiev sat and performed still remained in Disney’s house at the time of the recording, and the video begins with Disney himself playing a few bars from Peter and the Wolf on the famous keyboard.
I remember how his fingers flew over our battered old piano,” Disney says with a bit of a wistful smile, “how his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”
It’s a wonderful video. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.
(And, while this has nothing to do with the meetings of these great men, I can’t refuse to direct you to one of my favorite recordings of Peter and the Wolf ever – done by my wife Oksana Mysina with the Russian National Wind Quartet. Consider this a bonus track.)

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So, in regards to Fantasia, Prokofiev fell by the wayside early. One can’t help but wonder if Disney already knew that he wanted to devote an entire film to Peter and the Wolf, choosing not to “dilute” it in a miscellany. Be that as it may, Fantasia was originally intended to include music by both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. But the road to success is long and winding. And, in fact, the final cut featured only an abridged version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s The Firebird was also discussed for possible inclusion at some point, but was finally abandoned. Both scenes worked up to Rachmaninoff compositions – “Troika” and Prelude in G Minor – either ended up on the cutting room floor or were set aside at an earlier stage.
If any of this caused any jealousy or friction between the two men, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere. Stravinsky was usually respectful of Rachmaninoff and his place in history, if also somewhat uninspired by his colleague’s more traditional approach to the art of music. Rachmaninoff over the decades wavered between skepticism and enthusiasm about Stravinsky. According to Keenan Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” Rachmaninoff in 1918 “described Stravinsky ‘as a force to be reckoned with,’ noting that the early ballets ‘represented a high order of talent, if not genius.'” Stravinsky seems to have circled coolly around Rachmaninoff’s accomplishments with similar emotional reserve. According to Neeson:
In his only recorded assessment of Rachmaninoff’s music, published almost twenty years after the latter’s death, Stravinsky stopped short agreeing with those who said he didn’t like Rachmaninoff’s music but admitted that ‘it is true we composed very differently.’ Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff’s earliest pieces as ‘watercolors’ but said that ‘at twenty-five he turned to “oils” and became a very old composer. But,’ he continued, ‘do not expect me to denigrate him for that. In fact he was an awesome man, and there are too many others to be denigrated long before him. As I think about him, his silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations that are the only conversation of most musicians. Besides, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace when he played. That says a great deal.'”
Whatever the real feelings may have been between the two men, as recalled by Sergei Bertensson in Nicholas Slonimsky’s book Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, Rachmaninoff was an ardent fan of The Firebird.
I recall as we listened to the solemn and triumphant finale of The Firebird Rachmaninoff’s eyes filled with tears, and he exclaimed: ‘Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia.’ And when he was told that Stravinsky liked honey, he bought a large jar and personally took it in his car to Stravinsky’s house.”
I don’t know it for a fact, but I take pleasure in imagining that Rachmaninoff drove his beloved Cadillac over to Stravinsky’s house at North Wetherly Drive from his own place on Elm Drive. I have written about both of these places elsewhere in this space.
For those who appreciate tangents, playwright Frederick Stroppel wrote a play, Small World, about Stravinsky meeting Disney and hashing out their ideas over Fantasia. You can read about a 2015 production here.

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Sergei Prokofiev plaque, Moscow

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I asked my wife Oksana Mysina why she loves Sergei Prokofiev and her answer came quickly: “For everything.” I’m sure Sergei’s mother would be happy with that answer, but I wasn’t. “But what is it specifically?” I asked predictably. “It’s his dissonances,” she shot back. “They are unlike anyone else’s. You can tell a piece was written by Prokofiev instantly.  His music is extremely expressive, but never sentimental.”
Anyone who reads this space knows by now that I am a typical, deeply handicapped American when it comes to classical music. I know Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in part, because I made myself listen to it as an educational exercise decades ago. If I remember correctly, I liked it very much – but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it today, unless I went back and listened again.
“Peter and the Wolf” is a different story. I remember that extremely well; I listened to that a lot as a kid and I loved it. I still do. I love the playfulness and humor of it. That reminds me, by the way, that Oksana recorded an abbreviated version of “Peter and the Wolf” with the Russian National Wind Quintet several years ago. I really love their version. You can see it on YouTube.
Interestingly, for me, anyway, is the difference in the way that Russian and American cultures have locked onto certain composers and works. Kids from my generation, at least, all knew “Peter and the Wolf.” That made me assume the same was similar in Russia. But judging from Oksana’s comments that’s not true at all. It apparently is a more marginal work in Russia. The same can be said of some other works Americans consider true classics. I was knocked out, for example, when I found that Oksana didn’t even know Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” something I even – God forbid! – go around whistling sometimes. Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” too, is not the staple here it is the U.S. In recent years you do see it played more than the usual at Christmas/New Year’s time, but that’s as much to grab the foreigners in town as anything else. But I’ve gone a bit far afield.

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Prokofiev (1891-1953) had a fascinating biography. Born in a small Ukrainian village (near the region that is now plunged into war), he became one of the great musicians and composers of his time. Already being a composer of note, he emigrated to the United States in 1918, not long after the Russian Revolution. He lived for four years in the States, spent a short time in the Bavarian Alps, then settled in Paris in 1923. In the late 1920s (1927 and 1929, to be exact), when more and more Russian artists were feeling trapped by the politics of the day, Prokofiev toured the Soviet Union triumphantly. Then in 1936, just as the Great Purges were about to get underway (that happened in 1937), Prokofiev returned to Russia with his family. Between then and his death he left the Soviet Union only twice, in 1936-37 and 1938-39. In 1948, although he had written no small number of politically motivated works glorifying Soviet/Russian power and history, he was named along with several others in an attack on “formalist” art. It was a blow, some say, that he never quite recovered from. He died the same day that Joseph Stalin did – March 5, 1953. And, as all sources say, his death was not mentioned in a single Soviet newspaper.
Today a couple of museums are dedicated to Prokofiev’s memory in Moscow. The one pictured here is at 6 Kamergersky Lane, just across from the Moscow Art Theater. Prokofiev lived here, as is proclaimed on the plaque honoring him, from 1942 to 1953. I don’t know whether he actually moved in physically in 1942, or whether that is when this apartment on one of Moscow’s most prestigious streets was assigned to him. I do know that in the summer of 1941 he was evacuated to the Northern Caucasus as the German army drew closer to Moscow. (For the record, a reader informs me that the entrance to Prokofiev’s apartment was not this door by the plaque, but the next door to the right.)
In any case, this residence proved to be a good place to work. Over the last eleven years of his life Prokofiev wrote many works that are now considered among his best. The opera “War and Peace” is just one of them.
Prokofiev was a good player of chess and he made some nice quotes about the game. “Chess rules are made to be broken”; “Chess is primarily a battle with your own mistakes”; and “Chess for me is a particular world – a world in which plans and passions do battle.”
His story of his entrance exam at the Moscow Conservatory is also worth quoting: “My entrance exam came off rather effectively. Before me a bearded man brought in a romance without accompaniment as his entire baggage of work. I entered, stooped from the weight of two folders holding four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and quite a few pieces for fortepiano. ‘I like this!’ said Rimsky-Korsakov, who was conducting the exam.”
I’ve pulled all of these quotes from the Russian language Wikiquotes site.

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Sergei Prokofiev plaque, Moscow


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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Mstislav Rostropovich Monument, Moscow

IMG_3545.jpg2This monument to Mstislav Rostropovich appeared in the little square at the crux of Moscow’s Bryusov Pereulok and Yeliseyevsky Pereulok in 2012, five years after the cellist died. He was one of the great artists and great citizens of the world. He sheltered Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970s, when that writer was under attack from the Soviet authorities. But I don’t want to get into listing all of this cellists great deeds – I’ll never get anything else said.

IMG_3546.jpg2 IMG_3552.jpg2I used to see Rostropovich perform frequently in the 1980s in Washington, D.C., when he was the musical director and principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. I loved him for his temperament, his enthusiasm, his passion. No symphony orchestra could merely play under the direction of his baton. The musicians had to perform. With Shostakovich at the helm, the National Symphony Orchestra was a beast – a live, living organism that breathed and seethed. I know, I know. There are those who thought Rostropovich, especially as a conductor, was too emotional. In my book: Baloney. Rostropovich brought class, quality, breadth and depth to classical music in D.C. during his tenure. He breathed life and importance into a sleepy art form in a sleepy, or as the song has it – a “bourgeois” – town.

IMG_3547.jpg2IMG_3553.jpg2In Moscow, from the Perestroika era on, Rostropovich was a frequent and welcome guest. He rarely missed an opportunity to make it known what side he was on politically – showing up to play his cello as the Berlin Wall fell, and showing up in Moscow during the coup in Moscow to lend his support to Boris Yeltsin. The monument in Moscow is a multi-layered work by sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov and architect Igor Voskresensky. Among other things, it includes a page from the music to one of the works that Sergei Prokofiev wrote expressly for the musician.