“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.”