“Seryozha, we hardly knew ye”

“Seryozha, we hardly knew ye”

In last week’s Princeton Alumni Weekly, an astonishing statement about Sergei Prokofiev- surely one of the best-known of the great composers of the 20th century- is credited to Simon Morrison, an associate professor of Music at Princeton. “We know only about half of his compositions.”

Come again? Only half?

“Some were censored or altered [by Stalin’s henchmen]. Some exist in fictional or incorrect editions,” says Morrison, adding of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, “The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect. There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.” The corrected version will be given its world premiere by the Mark Morris Dance Group at Bard College in 2008. This follows other restorations shepherded by Morrison, such as the 2004 world premiere at Princeton of Prokofiev’s incidental music for a once-planned 1936 Soviet production of Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov staged by Vsevolod Meyerhold, whom Stalin executed in 1940.

Prof. Morrison’s book Prokofiev: The Soviet Years, to be published in the near future by Oxford University Press, will presumably detail his bold claims of the “lost Prokofiev,” based on years of hands-on research in various archives in Russia, where long-immured Soviet-era material on Prokofiev started to be released only in 2003. (Is Prokofiev, then, in for the kind of politico-aesthetic reappraisal that Shostakovitch has been undergoing for years?) I’m not a Prokofiev scholar and don’t know enough about Prof. Morrison’s research to make any judgment of his assertions: I leave that to Prokofiev biographers Harlow Robinson and David Nice and scholars like Richard Taruskin. I’ll only say that when you read about the changes Prokofiev had to make to his Romeo and Juliet in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, they don’t sound that different in kind and scope (cuts, reorchestration, script changes, etc.) from those Kurt Weill had to make in order for Street Scene to open on Broadway in January 1947. The big difference, of course, is that Weill didn’t make his changes at gunpoint (so to speak). And, changes or no, the score the world has known of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet for the last 70 years is pretty powerful stuff already.

But it does raise a general question: It’s one thing to say that the vast majority of history’s composers remain unknown. But how many of history’s known (and even “great”) composers are, effectively, “mis-known”-either through insufficient performance of the bulk of their output, or through actual suppression of significant chunks of their oeuvres?

There have been many such examples in recent years. The Mendelssohn Project is an organization that has championed hundreds of rediscovered, unperformed compositions of both Felix and his sister Fanny. If we don’t really know Mendelssohn and Prokofiev, surely there are other canonical and sub-canonical composers whom we don’t fully know. What about when the composer himself complies in his own falsification, as Charles Ives may have done by backdating (and probably secretly revising) many of his manuscripts so they appeared to predate European modernists?

Anyone who’s read Harlow Robinson’s book knows that the largest part of Prokofiev’s exertions were spent suffering chronic bad luck with his nine (depending on which works you count) mature operas. Prokofiev was indeed one of the greatest dramatic composers of the 20th century: a prolific composer of operas, ballets, and film scores. Yet that’s not the primary hook his hat hangs on, at least in this country. He tends to be remembered not as a man of the stage but for his piano music, for some of his symphonies and piano concerti, and for Peter and the Wolf. But from earliest childhood he wrote operas, and in adult life his greatest energy expenditures, even before the later Stalin period, were with embattled productions (or non-productions) of his stage works.

As Richard Franko Goldman once wrote, there are many ways a composer can suffer the sort of obscurity brought on by “the wrong kind of fame.”

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10 thoughts on ““Seryozha, we hardly knew ye”

  1. rtanaka

    Maybe you could argue that suppressions and “misrepresentations” are all part of the process — say, Shostakovich wouldn’t be Schostakovich without Stalin and the Soviet Regime breathing down his neck, for instance. What kind of music would have Shostakovich written had he not been censored? I don’t know…probably something else? What kind of music would have Prokofiev written if he was living on Saturn, with Sun Ra? I don’t know…probably something else?

    Composition is never “pure” in that sense anyway. By the time ideas get from your head and onto paper, most of it is already lost at that point, and you could really do endless revisions if you wanted to. But after going through the process of editing, publishing, performance, reception, critique, etc…I think it starts to accumulate some social significance that epitomizes something about that society at its time and place.

    Digging up previously unknown pieces is one thing (which is anthropological), but I’m a little bit leery about other people trying to “reconstruct” pieces of older works because I’m really not sure if they’re really painting a “truer” picture of the composer. Shostakovich is interesting because he presented lots of interesting solutions in avoiding the censor’s eye (or ear, I guess) and I can’t really see some pieces being “better” by supposedly finding out what they would’ve rather had written.

  2. marknowakowski

    To build off the first comment, another reference might be Eastern European film, famous for making bold statements in “code” in order to avoid the ever-present censor. Poland’s Kieslowski made a film related to the ten commandments in The Decalogue, or take the famous Czech anti-party film The Firemans Ball. Would these works be so great if they were not made under pressure? Then again, one can also argue that great art would be great art, no matter the situation of the artist…

    On another note, the west remains largely ignorant of the full extent of damage done by Stalin, as well as the human cost of his political vision. He was, without near equal, the most destructive man of the 20th century.

  3. Kyle Gann

    Charles Ives did not backdate, falsify, or surreptitiously revise his compositions. The ill-researched Maynard Solomon article to that effect has been disverified many times now by James Tenney, Stuart Feder, and others, the most complete being Carol Baron’s Perspectives article on the subject. It’s like so often in politics: the initial false charge makes a big news splash, while all the articles correcting it get buried on the back pages.

  4. MarkNGrant

    Standing corrected on Ives
    Thank you, Kyle, for setting me straight on Ives. I was going by Elliott Carter’s remarks to Vivian Perlis and the Swafford biography, but I hadn’t read the article by Burkholder in the Revised New Groves. Good to learn. Ives did revise earlier pieces, as you know, but I suppose by a standard that could equally be applied to both Rimsky-Korsakov and Pierre Boulez, among many other composers of disparate types.

  5. philmusic

    I never believed that stuff about Ives, it always seemed that those who said it had some kind of agenda – and not hidden!

    Phil Fried

  6. greyfeeld

    Kyle (or someone else):

    I think Alex Ross (*some* of whose stuff I rather like) did a recent article in which he repeats the ‘unoriginal Ives’ nonsense, hammered home with the “As Is Now Well Known” guff.

    Can someone please put up a website (or a page on their website) in which Carol Brown’s (and others) points rebutting the Maynard Solomon / Carter trashing are clearly stated? I remember sending the Carol Brown article to Johnny Reinhard — good grief, it must be more than a decade ago. But it would be convenient to have an online point-and-click site which simply lists all the rebuttals.

    Or does such a site already exist, for me to have as a bookmark?

    thanks and regards,
    Robert Bonotto

  7. Kyle Gann

    Ives site
    Greyfeeld – it’s a great idea, and I’ll be happy to do it, but can’t until I get home from Europe in late November – unless someone wants to send me the info. It really is irritating that these scurrilous charges will never seem to die. Ives wrote Carter a recommendation to Harvard, and Carter’s insulting post-Boulanger treatment of his former mentor – including a damning review of the Concord Sonata – is really unforgivable.

  8. pgblu

    That old Carter transgression
    I do remember reading somewhere that Carter deeply regretted his panning of the Concord sonata, chalking it up to youthful bravado and the mislaid conviction that he was doing Ives some kind of service. Misguided and unfortunate, perhaps, but I’d venture to say not unforgivable… the Concord Sonata is a lasting masterpiece today without the influence of any one negative critique.

  9. Kyle Gann

    Yeah, but Carter initiated the suspicion that Ives was dishonest about his career – and until that suspicion is dead, I don’t need to forgive Carter.

  10. philmusic

    That old Carter transgression

    that I know so well

    That old Carter transgression

    that we retell and retell

    those Ives’y score that get backdated too

    He did so many -yet he didn’t do

    That old Carter transgression

    How could we know?

    That old Carter transgression

    can someone show?

    So, round and round I go, through the internet I know.

    looking for proof, the proof that is the truth

    about that old Carter transgression

    maybe today!


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