It would be difficult to overstate the atmosphere of cultural excitement and even optimism that accompanied the first years of Communist rule in Russia. Throughout the arts--literature, music, architecture, painting & sculpture, dance, cinema--there was a feeling of anticipation and freedom, as the lid of suppression of the Czarist years was lifted. To be sure, there were many injustices promulgated on the figures and traditions of the recent past, and many talented individuals were unfairly persecuted. As later occurred in Nazi Germany, many of the best minds and creative types escaped to the West, and would continue to work for decades in exile. For those who stayed, the disillusionment that accompanied the waves of Stalinist repression would cause many to regret having chosen to cooperate rather than flee. No one escaped the political convulsions of the period: Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, among the most well-known, all had their careers and lives disrupted by the transformations wrought by WWI and WWII, the Russian Revolution, the Depression and the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain.
Sergei Prokofiev [1891-1953] had grown up under the twilight years of the Czarist regime, and this early period followed a fairly predictable pattern for a musical prodigy, performing and composing while still a child. Nevertheless, the young Russian had rebellious urges, and he chafed at the old harmonies and compositional styles of his teachers. By the age of 20, he had already begun to compose in dissonant, chromatic harmonies, and by 1914 he was traveling to Paris to work with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. As Russia entered WWI, he avoided conscription by studying organ, and continued to compose bold new works, such as the Classical Symphony (Symphony #1), his first two piano concertos, the piano suites Sarcasms and Visions Fugitives, the Scythian Suite, The Love of Three Oranges Suite, etc. Even today, these exciting, staccato, ultra-suave pieces sound fresh and novel.
One of my favorite Prokofiev compositions, and one which captures as much as any other piece I've heard from the heyday of the early Soviet Era in the arts, is his Le pas d'acier, or The Age of Steel, a ballet score composed for Diaghilev and written in 1925-26, which was premiered in Paris in 1927. The theme of the ballet centers on life in the then-decade old Soviet Union and features staging with factory machines and sprocketed wheels, the setting for a danced romance between a sailor and a young girl factory worker. The ballet was judged a success by the Parisian audiences, but was not performed again after 1931 until 2005 at Princeton University, in a version called faithful to the original, never-performed concept of a celebration of Soviet workers lives, instead of a mockery of them, which was the version seen by audiences of the early 20th century. It would probably be a stretch, even by those whose sentiments lie in the direction sympathetic to Communist ideologies, to claim that a ballet celebrating a factory worker romance could be considered serious entertainment. But along the valence of possible kinds of treatment of such subject matter, music is an abstract enough medium to support a concept of a stirring celebration of almost any kind of political dogma (i.e., celebrating Napoleon's military successes, or a sailor's night with a prostitute during a weekend's wartime shore leave, or a diplomatic encounter between major heads of state).
The first part of the ballet seems as inspired and stirring as it must have to Parisian audiences in 1927--full of thrusting declamation and charged ironies. The second part, which seems at first to pause in thoughtful consideration of lesser concerns, such as (perhaps) love, its sad, dreamy aspect in keeping, perhaps with the hardships endured by those commanded to live out the fantasies of bearded 19th Century German intellectuals who foresaw a future of grimly ordered indoctrination and rote obedience to "the demands of history." Humankind's elusive and flexible sensibility could hardly be contained within so narrow a view of behavior and aspiration. The music then turns brash once more, in a kind of fireworks display of diversion and noise (almost a note of peril coming in), before it once more turns thoughtful and quiet at the end.* The third section weaves the two melodies from the first two separate movements in a kind of thematic struggle, as if to suggest counter-tendencies contending for dominance. The music is suggestive in places of Stravinsky's Petrouchka and Rite of Spring ballets, especially in its primitivistic "Russian folk-like" themes, and contrast-y metallic brass and screeching string settings, its insistent 2/4 time signature, and eclectic mixture of moods and tones. The overall effect of the orchestration and its intense character is unlike anything that would have been thought of in the 19th Century. It is not impressionistic, though it employs many impressionistic effects. It is not "confident" music; the depredations of war and revolution run right through its aesthetic center, leaving dashed hopes and half-hearted crusades and dreams in its wake, culminating in a great wave of rising notes, as a sort of interrogatory. Is this the future? Is this what we deposed the Czar to achieve?
A work which began in apparent resolute commitment ends in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Is this a reflection of Prokofiev's personal disillusionment with Soviet era censure and paternalistic manipulation, or sour grapes for a future of artistic fulfillment and honor seized from him by the Revolution in his native country? Prokofiev left Russia in 1918 for America, where he thought his chances as an "experimental" "decadent" artist might have greater chance of acceptance. When he left, the People's Commissar for Education told him "you are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together, but if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way." But things did not work out very well for Prokofiev in America, and he returned to Europe to work on ballets and concert works which premiered in European--it was a very fruitful time for him.
But eventually he became nostalgic and homesick for Mother Russia, and in 1935 he returned to the Soviet Union, a choice which he probably eventually regretted, since it was at this very time that the severe oppression and even persecution of Soviet artists had begun in earnest. Prokofiev and Shostakovich found themselves the objects of a severely regressive censorship, intended to channel their work into propagandistic straight-jackets. Nevertheless, Prokofiev did his best to cooperate, participating in nationalistic promotions such as Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, and the Zdravitsa (or "Hail to Stalin" to celebrate the dictator's 60th birthday). Hidden within some of his more serious works, are other hints, such as the central movement of his Seventh Piano Sonata, which opens with a theme evoking the words "I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart. Nightingales... sing their song of longing from their dungeon's depth... everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the song," thought to express his true feelings, about his plight as a servant to a corrupt, murderous regime. More ambitious works would follow, but after WWII, the position of the artist in Soviet Russia became even more problematic. His Spanish wife Lina was imprisoned for "espionage" (sending money to her mother in Spain). and was not released for several years.
In a great irony of history, Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day, March 5, 1953. Notice of his death in the leading Soviet musical periodical was relegated to page 116, while the first 115 pages were devoted to the death of Stalin. The verdict of history will certainly include Prokofiev among the most impressive and popular composers in history. Like other artistic figures from that era, he was forced by sentimental commitments to nation and culture, to compromise his forward-thinking creative drives and tendencies in the interests of self-preservation and the permission to express himself in his chosen medium. But his creative genius was irrepressible. His unmistakeable lyrical gift, and wide emotional range over a broad spectrum of kinds of works, demonstrates that he would have been--as the French are fond of saying--a great musician at any point in history. This is only a glimpse into his life. His work is available in hundreds of recordings. But Le pas d'acier may be one you didn't know about.
*This noisy section was deleted from Prokofiev's "Suite" version that is often heard in performances today.