Forgotten Patriotisms: Music as Political History

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert Forgotten Patriotisms: Music as Political History, performed on Dec 13, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1952) picked the worst possible time for his permanent return from the West to Russia: 1936, the beginning of Stalin’s purges. All the time he lived in the West he kept his Russian passport and was careful not to make political statements against the Soviet regime. Except for the first few years of his escape, he never interrupted an intense correspondence with Nikolai Miaskovsky, his closest friend since the years when both were students of the St. Petersburg conservatory. The two differ in almost everything: Miaskovsky was ten years older, introspective, more conservative in his music–but they became instant friends. Each had high regard for music and for the other’s opinion. In fact the opportunity to see Miaskovsky and other friends provided the reason for Prokofiev’s first visit to the Soviet Union in 1927. When Stalin came to power and political atmosphere began to change, Miaskovsky carefully warned his friend, but Prokofiev was too eager to return to his homeland, where, he assumed, the Arts and the artists were taken better care of than in the West. “Politics” was not his concern.

He soon realized, however, that like his colleagues he had to submit some creative evidence of his loyalty to the regime. During the 1930s and 1940s he produced several patriotic songs and cantatas, learning on the way how to please the government, which, as he soon discovered, took “too much” care of the Arts.

Zdravitsa (“Hail to Stalin” or “A Toast”) was written in 1939, as commission by the All-Union Radio for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday. By that time Prokofiev knew how primitive and conservative official taste was (Cantata For the 20th anniversary of October was dismissed for its “leftist deviation”). This time he decided to play it safe. At the same time he did not want to fall into typical Soviet-style servile glorification of Stalin. He decided to create a kind of “Soviet Pastoral”, trying to be as simple as possible and using some stylistic devices from his recent successful film score for Alexander Nevsky. However, the work does include verses from the “folk songs” about Stalin. In fact, such “poetry” was written by professionals in a folk-like manner and then published in special “folk songbooks” in order to show the universal love for the Great Leader.

Though the composer obviously was not inspired–it is difficult to read the verses without laughing–there is beautiful music here: the main hymn-like theme, which opens and closes the piece, and the choral scene “Aksinya goes to Kremlin,” a masterly stylization of a wedding folk song. On the whole, Prokofiev succeeded in creating a seemingly warmhearted and joyful, though completely fictional, picture of a sunny life of Soviet “kolkhoznics”. The piece was approved by a special jury, recommended for further performances and published. The text, however, had to be changed in a second edition in 1956 when Stalin, who died on March 5, 1953 (the same day as Prokofiev), was dismissed by new Party leaders.