Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Composing for the Red ScreenProkofiev and Soviet Film$

Kevin Bartig

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199967599

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199967599.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 21 January 2019



(p.164) Epilogue
Composing for the Red Screen

Kevin Bartig

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Epilogue briefly considers a series of film projects Prokofiev considered but did not undertake during the final five years of his life.

Keywords:   kompozitor glinka, grigoriy aleksandrov, levon atovmyan, 1948 resolution

Eisenstein reportedly telephoned Prokofiev on 10 February 1948.1 Although the topic of their conversation is unknown, the director may have described his plans for A Poet's Love, a film about Pushkin for which he hoped Prokofiev would write a score.2 But like so much of his work, the film was left in the conceptual stages: late that evening, Eisenstein's cameraman Eduard Tisse phoned Prokofiev's apartment with the news that the director had died after suffering a heart attack.3 The next morning, Prokofiev received a second shock: the now-infamous “Zhdanov” Resolution attacking his music (and that of Shostakovich, Khachaturyan, Popov, Myaskovsky, and Vissarion Shebalin) for its role in an “anti-social, formalist trend” appeared in the pages of the newspaper Pravda.4 Two days later, Prokofiev, surely reeling from these developments, attended Eisenstein's funeral at Dom kino. Mendelson later wrote that while standing in the honor guard at Eisenstein's coffin, Prokofiev “did not divert his eyes from Sergey Mikhaílovich's face for a long while. From his life had departed a good, true friend.”5 He had lost not only a friend, but also his last great collaborator.6

Boris Volsky claims that he visited Prokofiev later in 1948 to offer a film commission, but that the composer proclaimed that “since the death of Sergey Mikhaílovich Eisenstein, I consider my cinematic career forever finished.”7 If true, Prokofiev's resolve set him apart from other colleagues named in the 1948 decree, who sought some refuge and financial stability through composing film music.8 Although Prokofiev may not have sought out such support, it was repeatedly offered to him: Volsky's was the first of at least five offers that came during the final years of the composer's life. Generally, he refused such invitations without much consideration. On 16 June 1949, for example, longtime supporter Levon Atovmyan reported that a certain Yuri Vinokurov hoped to meet with the composer regarding a film, but the answer came swiftly: “I don’t know Vinokurov, but there's no way I want to write for a film.”9

Although Prokofiev may not have realized it, subsequent offers were associated with people he did know, figures from his cinematic past. It is tempting to think that they might have come to the aid of their embattled, erstwhile collaborator in the wake of the destructive 1948 Resolution; there is, for example, no evidence (p.165) that Prokofiev had been offered any new film project in the six years preceding the attack.10 A 7 September 1951 memo from the Kiev film studios conveyed a particularly unusual prospect: to reconstruct cues from the Kotovsky score lost during the evacuation, a task that could be done either by memory or by ear, transcribing from the soundtrack.11 The memo gives no clue as to the goal of such a request, but it is easily inferred: at the time, Igor Savchenko, Prokofiev's collaborator from Partisans, was at work in the studio on Taras Shevchenko, a biographical picture celebrating Ukraine's famed poet-revolutionary. Work was intense, and the planned December completion may have prompted Savchenko to seek out Prokofiev's thematically related score for re-use in his film. Prokofiev declined, but he was not opposed to the reconstruction, suggesting that the young conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky could carry out the task.12 But the offer seems to have been at least partially motivated to help Prokofiev, since the Kiev studio administration subsequently paid for an original score by the composer Boris Lyatoshinsky rather than follow through with Prokofiev's suggested (and far less costly) plan.

On 24 June 1952, Atovmyan transmitted another request:

They telephoned from Cinema. They asked you to write music for the animated film Flight to the Moon. Roughly 15 minutes of music is needed. It seems the honorarium will be around 15,000 (no less than 12,000) rubles. I refused at first on your behalf, but the cinema people pester all the same. Resolve the matter and let me know. At the least you could do a piano score (without an orchestral score). The deadlines, they say, won’t be a worry, but this in particular can’t be trusted, since cinema people are a strange sort. I await your decision.13

The film (Polyot na lunu), set in a fictional future of space travel, concerns Kolya Khomyakov, a brave young communist who undertakes a risky mission to recover a lost rocket on the surface of the moon. The prominent animators and sisters Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg created the film, working at Moscow's Soyuzmultfilm studios. The younger Brumberg (Zinaida) may have remembered that Prokofiev had briefly signed on as composer for her 1933 film Skazka, which she co-directed with Ivan Ivanov-Vano (see Chapter 1). But the impetus to seek out Prokofiev more likely came from her assistant, Mikhaíl Yanshin, who had long ago played Pavel in Lieutenant Kizhe, Prokofiev having adjusted his score on-set to accommodate the actor's limited singing abilities. As Atovmyan anticipated, however, Prokofiev refused the offer.14

Yet Prokofiev was not as categorically opposed to a new film project as Volsky's anecdote or Atovmyan's expectations suggest. Another historical picture piqued his interest in 1950, this one on a subject he knew well: the life and music of Mikhaíl Glinka. The film, entitled Kompozitor Glinka (1952, distributed in the West as Man of Music), was, rather extraordinarily, the second Soviet biopic (p.166) devoted to the composer produced in the postwar period.15 The director Grigoriy Aleksandrov hoped his effort would correct a perceived superficial treatment in Leo Arnshtam's 1947 Glinka, for which Shebalin had composed a score. Aleksandrov's film zoomed in on discrete periods of the composer's life—in contrast to Arnstam's rather broad treatment—but it also distorted the historical record far more deeply: Glinka's formative years in Italy are depicted as artistically vacant, his national voice emerging almost spontaneously when he hears the singing of Russian peasants upon returning home. Aleksandrov had begun work on the film already in 1948, at which time he chose Shostakovich as his collaborator. The composer, whose life had been turned upside down by the 1948 Resolution, eagerly accepted the commission in October, he and Aleksandrov agreeing on a partially original score based on Glinka's own works. Studio delays prevented timely work on the film, however, and Shostakovich drafted his first musical plan only a year later. But the setbacks also precipitated a dramatic reduction in composer honorarium, a development that caused Shostakovich to drop the project almost as soon as he had begun. His replacement, Yuri Shaporin, similarly withdrew almost immediately after accepting the commission, though the reason is unclear.16

Thus in mid-April 1950, Aleksandrov appealed to a third composer: Prokofiev.17 Mendelson later recalled that Prokofiev found some parts of the script “enthralling,” and others “exceedingly painful,” particularly the dismal reception of Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. Simon Morrison suggests that Prokofiev ultimately declined the offer because Glinka's defeats proved too poignant and reminded him of his own opera-related tribulations and disappointments.18

But Prokofiev did, in fact, accept the commission after poring over the screenplay for several days.19 He certainly perceived its historical distortions, but the enormous role Aleksandrov had carved out for the film's music outweighed that shortcoming. On the one hand, the task was similar to the one offered to Shostakovich, that is, reworking music that was largely Glinka's. On the other hand, the score was to convey the film's ideological lesson in a challenging fashion, casting Glinka's A Life for the Tsar as a metaphor for the composer's own creative outlook. The opera's contrast of national styles—Polish versus Russian—would govern the film's overall plot, underlining a narrative of false music (Western) versus “true,” folk-based music (Russian). The former leads Glinka into an aesthetic cul-de-sac (just as in the opera it leads the Poles to their deaths), but the latter galvanizes him, leading him to forge a national school free of corrosive Western influences. His struggle takes on the dimensions of a nationalist military conflict: at the end of the film, soldiers returning home from the Siege of Sevastopol (a decisive battle during the Crimean War) were to be singing the final chorus from A Life.20

On 15 June, Aleksandrov visited the composer at his dacha to discuss production plans. He blanched when Prokofiev, bemoaning the limitations his failing health had placed on his work schedule, requested an entire year to complete the (p.167) score. Fearing further production delays, Aleksandrov rescinded the offer. Significantly, Prokofiev made no mention of the project's paltry honorarium; archival records do not indicate the amount, but it must have been small indeed: Popov, the next composer on Aleksandrov's list, refused outright when he learned the amount.21 Vladimir Shcherbachyov ultimately arranged the score and, in an ironic twist, was assisted by Shebalin, the composer for Arnshtam's supposedly deficient take on Glinka.

Kompozitor Glinka, though another unrealized project, furnishes a fitting coda to this book. The film again presented a compositional challenge, one that was wholly unlike the other four projects Prokofiev refused in the last years of his life. It was a variation on the old task of serious music for a mass audience, only here the assignment was to process the works of the revered “father” of Russian music for a broad Soviet audience. Not only did such a project cast Prokofiev as arbiter of Glinka's legacy but it also would have crowned his engagement with the Russian national past that began in Alexander Nevsky and matured in Ivan the Terrible.

Each of Prokofiev's film scores bears the composer's characteristic formal consistency, lyricism, and an overall stylistic conservatism. But as this book has suggested, there was never a consistent approach to film music; rather, it evolved with the challenges posed by time, place, and subject. Reconstructing little-known projects such as Lieutenant Kizhe, The Queen of Spades, or Lermontov alongside the famous Eisenstein pictures only reinforces that impression. Prokofiev was alternately obstinate and pragmatic in his film work, first holding stylistic austerity above subject, but then turning to subject as a determinant of style. When expedient, particularly during the difficult war years, he gave in to convention; at other times he sought himself to define it.

Viewing Prokofiev's film work as a whole also reveals striking ironies. In the composer's lifetime, arguably far more people heard his film music than his ballets, operas, or other works together. And, particularly with successes like Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev's music played a critical role in conveying ideology to a broad audience. And yet in a state that sought to shape cultural creation, film music was the least-monitored genre in which Prokofiev worked: ideological scrutiny fell far more thoroughly on scriptwriters, directors, and studio administrators. The status of a studio composer may have frustrated Prokofiev, but it saved him from the torturous mandated revisions that he suffered with other works, notably his magnum opus War and Peace. The desire to compose for a mass audience, moreover, derived as much from politically motivated Soviet commissions as it did from a simple interest in ever broader artistic horizons, the latter spurred on by visits to Hollywood. Indeed, the draw of the American film industry is easy to dismiss. In his recent biography of Prokofiev, for instance, David Nice praises the composer for turning down the “frivolous” and “abhorrent” commission that (p.168) Gloria Swanson offered in 1930. Yet, had it not been for Prokofiev's tour schedule (or the composer's clumsy negotiating), he most likely would have written for the film, betokening a very different career path, but surely one with many of the same mass-audience challenges that Prokofiev ultimately sorted out in far-removed studios.22

It remains unclear if Prokofiev revisited his detailed journals late in life, or the now two-decade-old rhetorical question contained therein.23 He wondered if he could write completely accessible music and “still stand to put [his] name on it.” He subsequently answered that question affirmatively again and again, even if the bureaucracy under which he labored accused him in 1948 of having fallen short of his goal. Time, of course, proved that crude attack wrong.


1.Interview with Naum Kleiman, 20 May 2008. Mira Mendelson claims that Prokofiev and Eisenstein last saw each other in person during the summer of 1947, when the director visited Prokofiev at his summer home. M. A. Mendel'son-Prokof’yeva, “Vospominaniya o Sergeye Prokof’yeve (fragment: 1946–1950 godï),” in Sergey Prokof’yev: Vospominaniya, pis’ma, stat’i, ed. Marina Rakhmanova (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo ‘Deka-VC’, 2004), 103.

(2.) Eisenstein, Selected Works, 4: 715.

(3.) Mendel'son-Prokof’yeva, “Vospominaniya o Sergeye Prokof’yeve,” 103.

(4.) Morrison, The People's Artist, 295–3401948 god v sovetskoy muzïke

(5.) Mendel'son-Prokof’yeva, “Vospominaniya o Sergeye Prokof’yeve,” 104.

(6.) Simon Morrison, “Rostropovich's Recollections,” Music & Letters 91 (2010): 83–90.

(7.) Volsky, “Memories of S. S. Prokofiev” (see appendix).

(8.) Egorova, Soviet Film Music, 122.

(9.) Kravetz, “Prokofiev and Atovmyan: Correspondence,” 242

(10.) “Castelnuovo-Tedesco in America: The Film Music” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1994)

(11.) RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 809, l. 28 (letter dated 7 September 1951). He also offered to buy a copy of the score if Prokofiev had one.

(12.) RGALI f. 1929, op. 3, yed. khr. 121, l. 1 (letter dated 26 September 1951).

(13.) Kravetz, “Prokofiev and Atovmyan: Correspondence,” 270 (letter from Atovmyan to Prokofiev, 24 June 1952).

(14.) Sinfonia ConcertanteMorrison, The People's Artist, 380.Flight to the Moon

(15.) See Chapter 4, note 3.

(16.) RGALI f. 2456, op. 1, yed. khr. 2515, ll. 39–58

(17.) Ibid

(18.) Morrison, The People's Artist, 358–59.

(19.) RGALI f. 2456, op. 1, yed. khr. 2515, ll. 39–58.

(20.) RGALI f. 2199, op. 3, yed. khr. 49.

(21.) RGALI f. 2456, op. 1, yed. khr. 2515, ll. 39–58.

(22.) Nice, Prokofiev, 275.

(23.) Simon Morrison, review of Sergey Prokof’yev: Dnevnik 1907–1933, edited by Svyatoslav Prokof’yev, Journal of the American Musicological Society 58 (2005): 233–43.