Today, Faber and Faber is publishing the third and last volume of the diaries of Sergei Prokofiev, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers. Born in Russia, he spent much of his life in Paris, that is until the 1930s when he returned to live in his home country despite the difficulties of Stalin’s rule. While still in his teens, Prokofiev began keeping a diary, and he continued to do so until his early 40s, intelligently documenting his personal, artistic and public life with some literary flair.
Prokofiev was born in 1891 in Sontsovka (now part of Ukraine), into a musical family in which his mother often played the piano. He was something of a musical prodigy, composing his first piano piece aged five, and his first opera at nine. By the age of 11, he was already under professional musical tuition, and by 13 or so he had entered the St Petersburg Conservatory. He became a fixed part of the city’s music scene, albeit as a rebel against musical traditions. His father died in 1910, leaving Prokofiev without financial support; however, critical recognition from the renowned musicologist Alexander Ossovsky led to Prokofiev being offered a contract. His first piano concerts were premiered in 1912-1913, and 1913 also saw his first foreign trip, to Paris and London, where he encountered Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
After 1918, Prokofiev lived abroad, first in the US, where his opera The Love for Three Oranges was staged, and where he met Carolina Codina (stage name Lina Llubera, but whom he also called Linette), a singer with a French father and Russian mother. They married in 1923, and subsequently had two sons, Sviatoslav and Oleg. That same year, the couple moved to live in Paris, where Prokofiev became a peripheral member of the Diaghilev set, writing several works for his ballet company.
By the early 1930s, Prokofiev was again choosing to take commissions from his home country, Russia, and to premiere his new works there. The Kirov Theater in Leningrad, for example, commissioned the ballet Romeo and Juliet, which would become one of his most famous works. In 1936, he returned to live in Moscow, and stayed domiciled in Russia for the rest of his life, despite being constrained musically by Stalin’s cultural policies. In this time, he wrote music for children, including Peter and the Wolf, and collaborated with Eisenstein on the historical epic Alexander Nevsky.
During the Second World War, state demands that composers should write in a ‘socialist realist’ style were lessened, and Prokofiev was able to compose more freely. He was evacuated together with a large number of other artists, initially to the Caucasus. By this time his relationship with the young writer Mira Mendelson had led to separation from Lina (though they never divorced). In 1944, Prokofiev moved to a composer’s colony outside Moscow where he created his Fifth Symphony, the one which would become his most popular. But after the war, government control over artistic expression again tightened, leading Prokofiev to withdraw from musical life. He died in 1953, on the same day as Stalin. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Boosey & Hawkes, or the Grove Music biography on PBS.
Lina, who had been imprisoned for spying during Stalin’s latter years, outlived her estranged husband by many years, dying in London in 1989. She and her sons spent much of their lives promoting Prokofiev’s work. It was Lina who set up The Serge Prokofiev Foundation (Sprkfv) in 1983; and it is the Foundation that first published Prokofiev’s diaries. A good introduction to the diaries, by Sviatoslav, can be found on the Sprkfv website.
‘It is well known,’ he writes, ‘that my father was an indefatigable writer who kept a considerable correspondence with numerous personalities of his times. The author of a remarkable autobiography, he also wrote some short stories during his travels in his early years. Yet another side of his genius has remained in the shadow, that of an attentive, objective and critical writer with a good sense of humour, who fixed vividly his daily life, time and contemporaries in a diary that covers a great many years (1907-1933). This is of special interest since Prokofiev’s life spans a period particularly rich in political and cultural events throughout the whole world.’
Prokofiev’s diaries were first published in Russian in two volumes by Sprkfv (along with a third volume of photographs): a first part (1907-1918) covering Prokofiev’s youth, studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, journey to the US through Siberia and Japan; and a second part (1918-1933) covering his first steps in the West, first concerts in the US and Europe, work with Diaghilev in Paris, family and life in France. Subsequently, the diaries were translated into English by Anthony Phillips, and published by Faber and Faber in three volumes: 1907-1914, 1915-1923, 1924-1933. The first came out in 2006, the second in 2008 (see The Diary Review - Prokofiev’s literary gifts, though most of the links no longer work!), and the third has just been published today (1 November 2012) with the subtitle Prodigal Son.
According to Faber, ‘The Diaries document the complex emotional inner world of a Russian exile uncomfortably aware of the nature of life in Stalin’s Russia yet increasingly persuaded that his creative gifts would never achieve full maturity separated from the culture, people and land of his birthplace. Since even Prokofiev knew that the USSR was hardly the place to commit inner reflections to paper, the Diaries come to an end after June 1933 although it would be another three years before he, together with his wife and children, finally exchanged the free if materially uncertain life of a cosmopolitan Parisian celebrity for Soviet citizenship and the credo of Socialist Realism within which it struggled to straitjacket its artists.’
Here are several extracts taken from the second published volume of Prokofiev’s diaries, subtitled Behind the Mask.
21 August 1919
‘Stella tells me that she is probably going with her father for a two month tour to London. I responded: “Fine, then I’ll look for someone else.” This alarmed her: surely I didn’t place so little value on our relations that I could contemplate replacing her with “any old person”? We had dinner together somewhere in the country and spent the time very voluptuously.’
25 August 1919
‘I was in town. The copyist, scoundrel that he is, having copied 200 pages of score now refuses to do more on the grounds of ill health and tired eyes. It’s true he was cheap, at 25 cents a page. He said that when he recovers he will be able to resume, but at 60 cents a page. I said I would be happy to pay 80, but not to him. Still, it is not a good situation: I have to deliver it by 1 September and there are 50 pages still to do. I telephone Altschuler to see if he could suggest another copyist, but Altschuler has not paid his telephone bill and I could not get through to his number.
Stella and I went out of town for dinner. She is leaving on 15 September and since we have become reconciled to this she has been nicer and more loving.’
1 October 1919
‘Today is the contractual deadline for the score of Three Oranges, and I finished the last page at exactly two o’clock in the afternoon. “Terribly chic,” as Max Schmidthof would have said. Quite true; it was calculated to a nicety.’
12 October 1919
‘My first recital. A little early on in the season, but we had wanted a Sunday, and all the later ones had been taken. I was a little nervous of the Bach, but the performance passed off without incident. The Beethoven Contredanses were very good, also the Schumann Sonata. But the greatest success was reserved for the five shorter pieces of mine with which I concluded the programme, ending up with Suggestion Diabolique. This had an extraordinary success, reminiscent of the good old days in Petrograd. I gave six encores.’
18 Ocober 1919
‘Went [. . .] to the Stahls where it was nice and sunny. I flirted with my new admirer, Linette, who in spite of her youth - she is twenty - is quite demure. Stahl says, however, that this is only a facade, and indeed she agreed to sing in front of everyone provided that I accompanied her.
And Stella - well, it is now a month since she left, and I have not heard a word from her. About ten days ago I sent her a box of chocolates but I didn’t write either, although I have thought of her a lot.’
1 November 1919
‘When I arrived in New York [. . .] a letter from London was waiting for me, proposing a production of Three Oranges at Covent Garden in June. Now this is an event of truly enormous importance! A year ago I entered into correspondence with Bakst trying to get Three Oranges produced in the autumn season in Europe, but it came to nothing because Bakst was relying on Diaghilev, and I already knew that there would be no resurrection (at least in the operatic sense) for Diaghilev in that season. But now Coates, the clever fellow, has had the excellent sense to take up the idea. It if works, then hurrah! in six months I shall have a quick and brilliant entrée into Europe.’
9 December 1919
‘Linette came in the evening. It is a long time since anyone loved me as this dear girl seems to do.’
22 December 1919
‘Sent Mama a telegram via the Consul. Ilyashenko is going the day after tomorrow straight to Rostov, where Mama currently is. I must send some money with him for her. Although it will take him five weeks to get there, there may be a delay in the £100 cheque reaching her, the Bolsheviks may get really close to Rostov, in which case somehow or other she will have to get away to Constantinople.’
23 December 1919
‘Scraped together my last remaining money (there’s not much left) and bought a cheque for £40 for Constantinople (cheques for Russia are unobtainable). Ilyashenko came to see me in the evening; he loves my music very much. I played to him until I dropped, so that he would take the greatest care of my letter and cheque.
Bought a ticket to go to Chicago and took $100 for expenses. After paying for the apartment there are $80 remaining in the bank account. Not much. If the Chicago concert doesn’t produce any profit, I’ll have to borrow from Kucheryavy.’
24 December 1919
‘Practised the piano for Chicago. Lunched with Blanche, who, not having heard from Stella for over a month, is very annoyed with her. Some reports say that the theatre company is in trouble and will be coming back to American in January, but others say that everything is going well for them and Stella is “happy as a butterfly”. Well, so she may be. Although I always think of her with happiness, might I not be better concentrating more intently on Linette’s gentle devotion? And when, that evening, Linette and I took the boat on our way to the Stahls to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Dad, my heart somehow felt more loving towards Linette knowing that over there Stella was ‘as happy as a butterfly’.