Laetitia Le Guay, Prokofiev (2012)

All is quiet and well over here, and we’ve just finished the lovely traditional chocolate “log” (the French bûche de Noël) and while the kids are playing with their new toys, I am trying to close the year without forgetting books finished recently.

This book actually was a result of a misunderstanding: my husband bought it to me believing that Prokofiev was one of my favorite composers, when I actually know very little of his music, but enjoy a lot more of his Soviet almost-contemporary “colleagues”, Khachaturian and Shostakovich.

So I found myself in the very strange position to read the biography of a man I didn’t care much about. The main reference I know Prokofiev by is Peter and the Wolf, which music teachers made me learn almost by heart. Needless to say, I’m not overly fond of it now, although I recognize its pedagogical value.

Why did I pick the book up at all? You’d wonder. (A practical precision: in France you can’t return a book at the bookshop even if it’s a mistake.) But after all, I am interested in the period, so why not? (I’ll spare you the trip to Wikipedia and the calculation, always difficult after a big dinner: Prokofiev’s dates are 1891-1953, which means that he was 26 at the Bolshevik revolution, and that he died the same year as Stalin, indeed the same very day)

I wanted to learn how a man not mainly involved or even interested in politics could live through so many upheavals just by being born in Russia: two world wars, a revolution and a totalitarian dictatorship. Of course, Prokofiev is not the ordinary man, but I have always been wondering about people swept by larger-than-life events, and it  The result was rather disturbing, because Prokofiev was so full of his own genius and so immersed in music that he could live through all this without many personal disturbances. All his life choices were dictated by music, even in a dictatorship (don’t expect high-level puns on Christmas day).

All he cared about was that his music was played and applauded, and I had a hard time commiserate with his fate. At the fall of Czar Nicholas II in 1917, Prokofiev took refuge in the Caucasus to continue writing in peace. Later, even if he was sympathetic to progressive ideas, he was afraid of Bolshevik censorship and decided to follow Stravinsky into exile, more for the sake of having time to compose rather than by ideology. In the early 1930s, being tired of exile and not as well received as expected, he listened to Stalin sirens who through pressures and material offers (a position, a dacha, a car…) tried to entice the respected composer back to the motherland. Of course we know it was a trap, but I wonder how much it was possible to guess at the time. He became a permanent resident in Moscow in 1936, but he soon fell prey of the paranoid atmosphere of suspicion, censorship (his style was soon deemed too “bourgeois”), political purges and desperate attempts to please the great leader.

Without listening to his music, it was difficult to find Prokofiev admirable. He comes out as arrogant and cold to anything other than music. All the more after he and his wife Lina who seemed to regret the Western free world drifted apart and after he left her with his two sons for a much younger woman. In 1948 Lina was arrested and sent to prison, and apparently Prokofiev did little to help her out (it might have been too dangerous or difficult for him to, anyway).

I read this book quite quickly and I regretted not learning more about his wife, as this book is very centred on musical analysis. Apparently there’s a good book about Lina, called “Lina and Serge” by Simon Morrison (reviewed here). Have anyone read it?

My next move was to pick up Into The Whirlwind, a memoir of the life in Gulag under Stalin by Evgenia Ginzburg, a recent Persephone republication. Can you see a trend starting here?

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4 thoughts on “Laetitia Le Guay, Prokofiev (2012)

  1. You’ve got some great recommendations here. Shame my French isn’t up to reading some of them. I hope you had a lovely Christmas and I look forward to more book reviews in 2015!

  2. Pingback: The one on how survive the Gulag | Smithereens

  3. Pingback: The one on how to survive the Gulag | Smithereens

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