If a historical period as ominous as the 20th century may be typified by a gesture, perhaps it is the ironic smile, or grin, or grimace. The historian Paul Fussell, in his landmark work The Great War and Modern Memory, distinguishes irony as the omnipresent tone of the modern age, ushered in with the brutality of the First World War: soldiers harvested in trenches while citizens (and even some of the soldiers on leave) picnicked in public gardens. Virginia Woolf expresses this new tone, even a code of conduct, in the character of Mrs. Dalloway, who holds her famous party as if it were an affront to death: or mass-death: itself.
The rise of the Soviet Union, with its dream of universal brotherhood and its nightmare of state terror, is central to this 20th-century theme. As an example of how a cruel irony may underscore a single life in that place and time, the composer Sergey Prokofiev figures as a representative figure.
His death alone stands as a microcosmic vignette of an ironic age: Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953, the same day as Josef Stalin. The composer's chief tormentor, who imposed a reign of fear over his people, would generate a chaos of mourning throughout the nation following the announcement of his death. Thousands gathered to view Stalin's corpse in Moscow, and hundreds were trampled to death trying to catch a glimpse of their fallen leader.
In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross writes of Prokofiev's memorial service: "About thirty people showed up to bid Prokofiev farewell. The Beethoven Quartet was instructed to play Tchaikovsky, although Prokofiev never liked Tchaikovsky; the quartet then disappeared into the mob to play the same music for Stalin. The hearse was not allowed near Prokofiev's house, so the coffin had to be moved by hand, through and around streets that were blocked by crowds and tanks. As the masses moved toward the Hall of Columns [where Stalin lay in state] along one avenue, Prokofiev's body was carried in the opposite direction down an empty street."
The question, "Do we laugh or cry at this?" in part defines the calamitous century.
Yet perhaps the cruelest irony of all is that Prokofiev had every opportunity to live free of the pervasive fear of the Gulag. Prokofiev, unlike his contemporary and sometimes-rival Dmitry Shostakovich, enjoyed an ample life and career in the West. Both as a composer and pianist, Prokofiev found success in the great concert halls of the world. He was even enticed by Hollywood with an offer of $25,000 per week: a fortune in the midst of the world Depression. He could have joined Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold, or for that matter Thomas Mann, Bertholt Brecht, and many others who prospered in exile in southern California. Instead, Prokofiev's response: "That's nice bait, but I won't swallow it. I've got to go back to Moscow to my music and my children."
Why would Prokofiev willingly stride into the abyss in 1936, just as Stalin's violent purges were transforming the Soviet Union into a republic of fear? Prokofiev was a complex man in complicated times; there are a number of answers to this question.
For one, the Russian composer was not hugely popular in the West. He lacked the notoriety or succs de scandale of his countryman Stravinsky, and the fad that had embraced the exoticism of all things Russian: which Stravinsky had played to the hilt: had waned. Prokofiev was one of many talented composers in Western Europe, and he could feel his stature diminishing. A ballet to which he had written the score, On the Dnepr, was an unmitigated flop. "The music is some of the weakest M. Prokofiev has written," the prominent Le Figaro critic Robert Brussel responded dispiritedly.
In contrast, Prokofiev experienced enthusiastic audiences and glowing reviews whenever he returned to his mother country. By 1933, he was the toast of Moscow, rather than: as he was in Paris: just one in the crowd.
Moreover, Prokofiev was caught up in the new spirit that could be found in Soviet life. In the spring of 1935, he gave a lecture-concert series in Russia. Rather than performing in the elegant concert halls of Western Europe, Prokofiev played solo piano in industrial complexes before audiences "dressed in drab work clothes and boots," writes Prokofiev biographer Harlow Robinson. "The concerts were held in plain and drafty wooden buildings hastily erected near muddy construction sites."
Prokofiev was enraptured by the experience: "I was simply amazed at the ecstatic attention with which the Chelyabinsk audience listened to my works," he later wrote.
The Russia that Prokofiev kept in his mind and heart was a homeland where he could be of use within a great new social experiment in which culture was a necessity. "When you arrive in the U.S.S.R. from abroad," he observed, "you feel something completely different. Here, dramatic works are needed, and there is no doubt what subject they should address: the subject must be heroic and constructive (it must be creative, not destructive). This is what our era demands."
Although Hollywood had its expanding movie industry, Russia had Sergey Eisenstein, a genius of modern cinema, with whom Prokofiev would collaborate on two film masterpieces, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. Prokofiev saw himself belonging to an era of great art and artists in the Soviet Union.
He was promised a place in that Arcadia, and believed that he would be immune to the restrictions and censorship and fear that other artists suffered. Once the gates were closed behind him, however, he would know intimately: as Alex Ross describes it: "the ritual of humiliation that every Soviet composer had to undergo."
His head full of dreams, Prokofiev entered Stalin's terror.
The St. Louis Symphony performs Prokofiev as part of this season's Russian Festival.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the St. Louis Symphony.