September 26, 2007: Features
By Merrell Noden ’78
Sergei Prokofiev is among the most popular composers of the last century, judging, at least, by sales of his recorded work. And no wonder: His gift for melody was Mozartian, his talent for modulation peerless, and he composed in virtually every musical form, from symphonies and concertos to operas, ballets, film scores, and solo works for the piano. If you don’t know Prokofiev from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, you almost certainly know him from Peter and the Wolf, the delightful score with narration that he composed to introduce children to the different sounds of the orchestra instruments.
But the real Prokofiev turns out to have been different from the composer we thought we knew for all these years. The real Prokofiev wasn’t just hidden by the Iron Curtain, he was crushed by it when, in 1936, after 18 years of living abroad in hopes of making his reputation in the West — in the United States, Bavaria, and Paris — Prokofiev was enticed from France back to the Soviet Union by a regime eager to exploit its national heroes. He was promised special privileges and assured he’d be free to compose. He was an easy target, since his work had not gotten the warm reception in the United States that he’d hoped for.
As Prokofiev soon discovered, this was a Faustian bargain, and for the remaining 17 years of his life, he watched as his collaborators were imprisoned and murdered, his own health was stressed to the point of breaking, and his music was vandalized and exploited for the “greater good” of a ruthless state. Compositions we’ve cherished for years turn out to have been bowdlerized or rewritten, either by Soviet censors or by Prokofiev himself, acting under pressure from them.
“We only know about half of his compositions,” says Simon Morrison *97, an associate professor in the Princeton music department who has spent the last few years working to set the record straight. “Some were censored or altered. Some exist in fictional or incorrect editions. I could spend the rest of my life just going through these trying to correct the record.”
While you can’t libel the dead, you certainly can consign them to a purgatory of contempt. That’s what has happened to Prokofiev, who tends to get viewed — often in contrast to his countryman Dmitri Shostakovich — as either a dupe of the system or a collaborator who got what he deserved. (Morrison believes that a full political biography of Shostakovich would reveal that he has been given too easy a pass for his service to the system.) Why Prokofiev chose to return from France “is the biggest question in Russian music studies and therefore one of the most intriguing questions in all of music history,” says Morrison. “I’m trying to answer that question. The answer is complicated and in its own way very frightening, but it’s fascinating.” An explanation, Morrison suggests, is that Prokofiev was “the target of a seductive, multipronged campaign waged by many Soviet agents, by diplomats, politicians, and party-line artists.” They had picked an easy mark since, with Hitler’s power growing, Paris was not a good place for a Russian. What’s more, Prokofiev’s sense of self-importance made him easy prey for their blandishments. He thought he could do what the Soviets asked of him while retaining a measure of creative control. He was wrong.
Morrison, who joined the department as a lecturer soon after receiving his Ph.D., is a music historian who specializes in something very much like reincarnation. Relying on every available source — notebooks, photos, sketches, newspaper accounts, and diaries, not to mention the original scores — he tries to restore lost operas and ballets to full-blooded life. Much of his earlier work dealt with lost ballets by Ravel, Poulenc, Debussy, and others. Now he is working to restore not only Prokofiev’s music but also his reputation. “In my racket, we all serve geniuses,” he says. “When one is not a genius, to be able to serve one is tremendous.” Lucky Prokofiev, to be served by someone as diligent as Morrison. At 42, Morrison is a tower of energy: teaching, writing books and articles, giving public lectures, and even taking ballet lessons himself, acquiring in the process a deeper appreciation not only of the dancer’s art but also of his aches and pains.
“Here he was last spring teaching ballet with Rebecca [Lazier, the University’s associate head of dance] and teaching 200 undergrads the introduction to music course while at the same time doing Boris Godunov,” says Caryl Emerson, chairwoman of Princeton’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She worked with Morrison on Boris Godunov, the play Aleksandr Pushkin wrote in 1825, which had its world premiere at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. “Then he goes off to Moscow, sits there in the archive for 10 hours a day, goes home, and writes it all down. It’s amazing.”
Morrison nearly has completed his book Prokofiev: The Soviet Years, which relies on documents long hidden away in various Russian archives to present a more accurate and ultimately more sympathetic view of the composer than those in earlier biographies, which were based on the sanitized official record. Though determined not to whitewash Prokofiev’s dealings with Stalin’s brutal regime, Morrison hopes to do justice to the complexity of his situation: “I’m writing to bring to light all these works that we don’t know anything about, to bring to light the amount of vandalizing, manipulation, and egregious transcriptions [of Prokofiev’s work],” he says. “I’m also trying to look at the kind of pressure he was under.” Partly the authorities were determined to teach this upstart who had gone to the West a lesson, and they did so at every opportunity, altering his works and breaking their promises to give him free rein to pursue his art. His 1937 “Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the Revolution” was banned, its content deemed subversive; his scores for a staging of Eugene Onegin and for the film The Queen of Spades went to waste when the directors of the two projects were censured. Prokofiev never had to look far to see terrifying examples of what could happen to anyone who bucked the system.
Morrison has no illusions of rescuing Prokofiev’s reputation completely. And he agrees that Prokofiev’s work raises difficult moral questions. “This is a great composer who wrote a lot of music to odious political texts,” says Morrison. “He wrote a piece in honor of Stalin’s 60th birthday. He wrote music for allegorically pro-Stalinist pieces like [the film] Alexander Nevsky. But they are popular. So the question is: Is there a moral problem in performing them? Should they all be removed from the repertoire because they are associated with Stalin, or should we exercise forbearance? I don’t want to say ‘censorship’ because that’s a bad thing, so [I’ll say] ‘forbearance,’ which means removing them for ethical reasons. Or do we perform them and turn them into a lesson? I believe they should be performed and should make us uncomfortable because of the questions involved.”
Morrison already has done Prokofiev a huge service by bringing to magnificent life two works that were performed and then lost, or performed in corrupt versions. The first was Prokofiev’s ballet, Le Pas d’Acier (The Steel Step), which was performed at the Berlind Theatre in 2005 for the first time since 1931. Last April he oversaw the world premiere at the Berlind of Boris Godunov, for which Prokofiev composed 24 pieces of incidental music. Though it used student actors and musicians, the production garnered front-page coverage in The New York Times, heady stuff for an academic. “Any other musicologist would dine out for years on one of these projects,” marvels Scott Burnham, the chairman of Princeton’s music department. “It’s what we all dream about: The thing that you dust off from the archives takes on a life of its own, takes on the magic that performing art gives, and comes to life quite visibly.”
Prokofiev “is a major composer, and Simon has brought together the resources of a major university to put together news-making productions,” Burnham says. “It’s not bringing just anything from an archive to life — it’s bringing something of vital historical and cultural importance to life on a big stage. So it’s tremendously exciting.”
Next summer Morrison’s work is sure to be in the spotlight again. Morrison has begun his most ambitious restoration project to date, collaborating with the Mark Morris Dance Group on a new version of Romeo and Juliet. The new ballet makes major changes to the one known and loved around the world. “We’re taking it back to the point where you can say, ‘This is what [Prokofiev] intended,’ being careful of that word,” says Morrison. “We’re restoring the story line he wanted.” It is scheduled to premiere at the Bard College Summerscape Festival next July 4, and will bring Morrison close to the end of his Prokofiev studies.
“I’m not in any particular rush to wrap it up,” he says. “But I know I have to and get on with my life.”Morrison was born in London but moved to Canada with his family when he was 5. He grew up outside Winnipeg, in the small, windswept town of Selkirk, where, if nothing else, he learned to endure the cold winters he would later encounter in Russia. His mother played the piano, but it was his father who brought music into the house through his love of the standard classical repertoire. “As far as I know, he didn’t listen to Russian music,” says Morrison, who grew up on the likes of Carmen, Strauss, and Mozart.
He played around with many instruments and was an accomplished student of the tuba. He also played drums in garage bands and calls Winnipeg native Neil Young “an idol.” College offered a change, and Morrison auditioned on the tuba for the University of Toronto music department and was accepted. There, recognizing the slim odds of ever becoming a professional tuba player, he hedged his bets by concentrating on music history and math and adding Russian to the mix.
After working briefly for the Ontario Arts Council, Morrison went to McGill University for a master’s degree in music history. He wrote his thesis on Prokofiev’s first Soviet opera, Semyon Kotko, which was based on Valentin Katayev’s novel I Am the Son of Working People. In 1991 Morrison went to live in Moscow, in part to work on his thesis but also to improve his Russian. He signed up for a program at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute but soon came to realize that the program was as disorganized as everything else in the country. Boris Yeltsin had just taken over from Mikhail Gorbachev, and the country was in a state of chaos. Russians still speak of that period as “a time of troubles,” and with good reason: Inflation was rampant, and there was little food.
This was not your dream year abroad. Morrison lived in squalid student housing that felt like something out of a Dostoyevskian nightmare. “It was this weird kind of dilapidated residence hall for foreign students as well as Russian local students,” he says. “It was very much on the edge of Moscow. There was a field of snow behind the building.” The yellow dust spread all over the dormitory floor turned out to be roach powder. “The cat in the hallway had a yellow tongue,” says Morrison, with a grimace.
But there were compensations: “Soviet champagne was still marketed, and it was dirt cheap,” says Morrison. “So we’d sit around with friends and learn Russian.” He and his friends took train trips to far-flung parts of the former Soviet Union, to the Ukraine and Odessa. “It ended up being one of the happiest years of my life,” says Morrison. “I made a lot of wonderful friends.”
He even found time to hole up in the Lenin Library and work on that thesis, which required some of the same diplomatic skills that have served him well on subsequent trips to Russian archives. “Simon has a combination of charm and perseverance,” says Burnham. “He gets in there and quickly establishes relationships with people and earns their trust. ... Not only is he the only American or English-speaking scholar, but to my knowledge he’s the only scholar at all — even including the Russians — who has this particular access to this material.” Morrison’s colleagues note that he is trusted both by the Prokofiev family and by the directors of the state archives that contain the Prokofiev material.
Much of the material relating to Prokofiev’s life was sealed until 50 years after his death. In 2003 a vast trove of materials became available. At the time Morrison was working on a collection of essays on six lost ballets from the 1920s. Dance music is a grossly understudied area of music history, partly because of the difficulty of preserving choreography. “When you look at ballet history before video,” says Morrison, “you’re confronting a vast emptiness, a vast silence. One thing I was interested in was to what degree ballets comment on their own ephemerality. But when the Prokofiev archive opened up, everything in my life changed because what I was confronted with was so remarkable.”
That meant immersing himself in Russia’s vast network of archives, which are still in a transitional state. Says Emerson, “They are out of people’s individual bedrooms and cardboard boxes, and the state is centralizing them but the state is also very nervous about giving access, not for the reasons you’d think in a communist country — for political reasons — but because people steal them and they turn up in auctions. This is capital. The country’s starving to death; the academics aren’t getting paid. The infrastructure has collapsed. You won’t believe what they’ve stolen: They’ve taken original poems by Pushkin and put them out at auction, unspeakably priced.”
Good relationships notwithstanding, Morrison must proceed carefully. There’s a fine line between getting what he needs and asking for too much. The Cold War might be over, but the paranoia and game-playing that marked it go on: “Russians will preserve things even if they are secret and never to be opened,” says Morrison. “So, for example, in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, you can literally look at the catalogue of documents associated with Prokofiev and see catalogues 1, 2, 3, and 5! Number 4 exists — it’s just not available. And they make sure you know it exists.”
Work conditions can be brutal. A few winters back, when Morrison was researching Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloe in the archives of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, it was so cold that he and the few other people working in the vast, semi-lit building routinely wore gloves. “At a certain point I was happy there wasn’t more information there because of how tough it was,” says Morrison.
His work on Prokofiev is, if anything, even more compelling, given the political questions surrounding the composer. Painstaking work though it is, it has become an obsession to nail down the facts about Prokofiev’s return and subsequent treatment. “It’s becoming an enormous addiction,” Morrison allows. “Sometimes, I’ve spent a week to get a sentence.” As an example, he cites a moment in 1938 when Prokofiev was allowed to visit the United States for the last time. The composer went to Hollywood and even met Gloria Swanson. Throughout the trip he was monitored by Soviet agents, and his movements were reported back to the Soviet Union. He was in New York when a call came offering him $1,500 a week to write music for Hollywood movies. But his two sons were then in the Soviet Union, and Prokofiev felt he had no choice but to return.
The first of Morrison’s Prokofiev projects, Le Pas D’Acier, was not such a big departure for the young professor. “The score was untampered with but the ballet had been lost,” says Morrison. In the mid-1920s, when he composed it, Prokofiev was living in Paris and feeling a bit sorry for himself. His thoughts kept turning to his homeland, where so much was happening in the arts. When Serge Diaghilev, the impresario of Les Ballets Russes, approached him about writing a ballet on a Soviet theme, Prokofiev leaped at the offer. He teamed up with the Constructivist artist Georgii Yakulov, who was back in Russia, and the two came up with a 40-minute ballet in two acts, which they envisioned as a celebration of Soviet industrialization following the Revolution. When it debuted in Paris in 1927 the ballet was viewed as pro-communist; in Moscow two years later it was understood to be the opposite: a communist satire. The last time it was staged before the Princeton production was in 1931, and that revival featured a different story line.
Diaghilev once described Le Pas D’Acier as his “Bolshevik ballet,” but Morrison believes Prokofiev was aiming for something lighter and less political. “The intention was to create a work that was a playful representation of the revolutionary change rather than something that was subversive and political,” he says. “It was about the body, the idea that the body was a machine. The result was a beautiful ballet. All the reviewers said the second half was incredible.”
This is not your little sister’s pretty ballet, but a vigorous dance that nods to silent movie acting and even gymnastics. In his production, Morrison enlisted Lesley-Ann Sayers, an English theater historian who already had spent eight years re-creating Yakulov’s visually arresting set, with its cogs and levers and hypnotic spinning wheels. Prokofiev’s music is insistent and troubled, even though there seems to be strong optimism at the end, when the factory collapses but the collective doesn’t.
Pushkin’s Boris Godunov presented a different sort of challenge for Morrison. The play focuses on the brief interregnum in the early 17th century between Russia’s two big dynasties — a period that always has fascinated Russians but alarmed their rulers — when Godunov was the czar. In 1936 the visionary director Vsevolod Meyerhold wanted to resurrect it in a staging that could not have avoided being seen as a critique of the current regime. He asked Prokofiev to supply about 40 minutes of incidental music, including several dances. But before the play, with Prokofiev’s music, could be produced, Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 on a spurious charge of treason stemming from his directorial experimentation. He was executed in 1940.
Decades later, Morrison found Meyerhold’s notes and Prokofiev’s handwritten score. “The published score was wrong, but to fix it was pretty easy,” says Morrison. “It was just a matter of looking at the plans for the Pushkin play that Prokofiev worked with and just matching it up.”
Pushkin, of course, occupies a special place in the Russian consciousness. “They all know Pushkin by heart, the way people used to know Shakespeare by heart,” says Emerson. There is a large Russian émigré population in the New York area, and just how revered Pushkin still is became clear when, following the Times’ front-page story, 1,500 calls came in seeking tickets for the four-performance Princeton run that already was sold out. A big contingent came from Moscow, including a television crew from Moscow’s Channel One. The Russian press reviewed the production with a mixture of jealousy that Russia had not managed to pull this off and pride that their beloved Pushkin could create such a stir in New Jersey. The production’s cross-racial casting threw the Russians for a loop, and they were impressed that a production of such high quality could be staged by a university. “When you watch this production, in which for the first time words and music are brought together into the unified whole of a stage performance, you understand how brilliant and captivating this forbidden show would have been at the beginning of 1937,” one Russian reviewer wrote.
Those two works are preparation for Morrison’s highest-profile project yet: his restoration of Romeo and Juliet, the ballet Prokofiev was hired to compose by Vladimir Mutnykh, the director of the Bolshoi Ballet. It long has been one of the world’s best-loved ballets, and yet, says Morrison, “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,” including solo dances for the hero and heroine. The orchestration was thickened. Fixing the ballet, Morrison says, “is a massive exercise.”
The biggest change Prokofiev and his collaborator Sergei Radlov made to Shakespeare’s familiar story was to add a happy ending: Their Juliet wakes up from her potion-induced slumber just as Romeo is reaching the awful conclusion that she is dead. But when Prokofiev presented his score to the Soviet cultural authorities, who had been growing ever more conservative, they balked at the ending. The Shakespeare purists among them did not like the idea of changing the familiar ending. Prokofiev had a logical answer to their objections, saying, “Living people can dance, the dying cannot.” Grasping at ways to preserve the integrity of his vision, he even suggested hanging a red flag outside the theater on nights when the sad ending was to be performed, a green flag when the happy one was planned.
Morrison found himself courted by some of the world’s top ballet companies, including the New York City Ballet, which wanted to produce the newly restored Romeo and Juliet. He settled on the Mark Morris Dance Group, which he has long admired, but he has no illusions of avoiding controversy. “This is a very high-stakes project,” says Morrison. “It’s the Holy Grail of the dance repertoire. So I know I’m in for it. That’s why, even this summer in Moscow, I had to make sure that I had the evidence to prove what I said happens, in documents, color facsimiles, Stalin signing off on [the familiar] version. I had to do all that because I know what’s coming.”
In a sense, Morrison may get a small taste of the sort of pressure Prokofiev himself felt toward the end of his life. In 1948 a scandal at the Union of Soviet Composers, the body that commissioned works and paid royalties, enveloped Prokofiev, which led to the banning of all his works and the annulment of his pension. Having seen the fates of Meyerhold and Mutnykh, who also was executed, he feared for his life. His blood pressure went up, and he had several strokes.
Prokofiev in old age hardly could have been more different from the brash young composer he once had been. He was a broken and sick man. All the good commissions were gone, and he was reduced to writing small pieces for radio and television. In 1950 he wrote a piece called “Winter Bonfire” for the Soviet Boy Scouts. “He had lost a lot,” says Morrison. “But he needed the money, so he did it.”
Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953, which, in a cruel twist, happens to be the same date officially given for Stalin’s death. It’s too late to save the composer from the mistakes he made. The best we can do for him, Morrison suggests, is to tell his story as accurately as possible and get out that incredible music.
“What happened to Prokofiev was a travesty of enormous proportions,” says Morrison. “I think that a historian can in a small way make amends and try to correct something that’s a historical wrong. Artistically, respecting the intentions of a work, scraping away all the political trash — the work will be better for it. It will have new life.”
Merrell Noden ’78, a freelance writer, is a frequent PAW contributor.