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Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film by Kevin Bartig (review)
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Considering his stature, the lack of up-to-date scholarship on Prokofiev until relatively recently has been both anachronistic and frustrating. Reasons for Prokofiev’s comparative neglect are manifold, of course: there is the Russian-language barrier, the difficulty of obtaining materials, and a lingering prejudice—by now hopefully dispelled—that such music ought not to be the domain of serious scholarship. Then, as if that were not enough to contend with, the Prokofiev family placed restrictions on large parts of the composer’s archive held in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, rendering access all but impossible except to a trusted few. Even today, a complete edition of the composer’s work remains an extremely distant proposition—new editions of a handful of works have been published, but nothing systematic since the old Soviet Prokofiev edition, woefully incomplete and far less user-friendly than the Soviet-era Shostakovich Complete Edition, which at least had Forewords in both Russian and English.

The late Noelle Mann’s pioneering foundation of the Sergey Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmith’s College with the generous donation of materials from the composer’s widow Lina Prokofiev has played a major part in fostering a new openness in Prokofiev research; the archive’s holdings are unique and are proving indispensable for researchers. David Nice’s biography of Prokofiev’s years in the West (Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891–1935 (New Haven and London, 2003)) kick-started the renaissance in Prokofiev English-language scholarship and was quickly followed by Anthony Phillips’s brilliant translations of Prokofiev’s diaries, which had already been published in Russian (Sergey Prokofiev Diaries 1907–1914; 1915–1923; 1924–1933 (London, 2006; New York, 2008; London, 2012)). Then came Simon Morrison’s groundbreaking study of Prokofiev’s career after 1935 (The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (New York and Oxford, 2008)). Alongside these publications came several important Russian-language studies that have made available crucial documentary sources relating to Prokofiev’s life in the Soviet Union. Though at first glance it seems as though Prokofiev has been neglected compared to Shostakovich, he has at least been (more or less) spared the undignified controversy that held back Western Shostakovich scholarship for so long. What is more, academic writing on Prokofiev in the last ten years has been of a uniformly high quality, marked by serious archival research, close study of the music, and, most crucially, a deep and broad contextual grasp of Soviet cultural history.

Kevin Bartig’s new study of Prokofiev’s Soviet film music adds to this small but distinguished body of work. Bartig’s scholarly range is admirably broad, encompassing meticulous archival work, familiarity with film and cultural studies, and a keen ear for analysis, especially evident in his discussion of Ivan the Terrible. His investigation of archival sources has proved fruitful, enabling him to correct a number of erroneous assumptions about Prokofiev’s work in film. Among the most interesting finds, Bartig shows that the Alexander Nevsky cantata was, in fact, considered for a Stalin prize in 1941 but was blocked, initially by the Head of the Committee on Arts Affairs, Mikhail Khrapchenko, and later very probably by Stalin and/or Molotov as well. In all probability, as Bartig notes, Prokofiev never knew how close he came to receiving this award, although his close friend Myaskovsky interceded on his behalf in the discussion and may have privately told the composer that at the very least, his cantata had been seriously considered. The other major revelation is that Prokofiev showed interest in writing another film score near the end of his life, in 1950. Initially devastated by Eisenstein’s death in 1948, Prokofiev had vowed never to work in film again. But with the passing of time, and the offer of an appropriately attractive project, Prokofiev agreed to collaborate on Grigoriy Alexandrov’s Kompozitor Glinka (The Composer Glinka), even though the fee offered was so minuscule that Shostakovich had already turned it down, and Prokofiev at that time of his life was far from wealthy. It was only when the composer—seriously unwell at the time—requested a year to complete the score, that...

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