Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The genius and the killer died together

Exactly 61 years ago today, the composer of "Peter and the Wolf" and the human wolf who slew millions of his countrymen passed away.

Sergei Prokofiev, one of the three greatest Russian-born composers of the century, was two months short of his 62nd birthday. (Stravinsky and Shostakovich were the others.) Josef Stalin, one of the three most notorious mass murderers of the century, had turned 74 two months earlier. (Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler were the others.)

One man lifted people up with his music; one ground them down with his might. One had a sense of humor, as you'll see if you attend N.C. Dance Theatre's "Cinderella" this month; the other reportedly seldom smiled, except perhaps at his own cruelty. Here's a taste of Prokofiev's music, turned into a suite.

The two men were linked in more than death. Prokofiev moved back to the Soviet Union in 1936 after living abroad for almost two decades. He swiftly came under scrutiny for "formalist tendencies," an all-purpose term used to stifle anything the Union of Soviet Composers felt didn't serve the ends of a happy Stalinist nation. (Shostakovich faced the same criticism. Though he outlived Stalin, he also died in his 60s.)

Here's how quickly things could turn in Soviet Russia: In 1939, Prokofiev was composing his opera "Semyon Kotko," in which a wealthy man plots to undermine the Russian Revolution in 1918 and restore the old order with the help of Germans and reactionary forces; the happy ending comes when he's executed, and the Red Army chorus sings a merry number. It was put on hold in June when director Vsevolod Meyerhold, once a favorite of the state, was arrested by Stalin's secret police. He was executed the following winter.

Stalin apparently did like three kinds of music: stuff that praised him directly, uplifted the Soviet people and/or contained no negative thematic elements (and few, if any, dissonances). He publicly praised both great artists (pianist Maria Yudina, who courted danger by saying she would pray for his soul) and mediocrities (countless composers of whom we know little today).

Masterpieces came out during his reign, including some from Prokofiev: the fairy tale "Peter and the Wolf," a rousing film score for "Alexander Nevsky," the ballets "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet." (The latter had a happy ending at first. Don't want Soviet citizens to cry over dead teenagers!) Here's the immortal Boris Karloff narrating "Peter."

Some composers stayed at home and camouflaged their feelings with musical codes, as Prokofiev and Shostakovich did. Some stayed overseas, beyond Stalin's influence, as Rachmaninov and Stravinsky did.

But I can't help but wonder what kinds of masterpieces we missed because of Stalin's crushing demand for conformity and sycophancy. Prokofiev and Shostakovich produced extraordinary and memorable pieces under bad conditions; what could they have done if given a free hand?

By the way, not one significant Russian composer has emerged in the 14 years Vladimir Putin has been running that country with ever-increasing Stalinist tendencies. Maybe he doesn't like music at all.