Going Back to the Bolsheviks

Mikhail Larionov, Portrait of Sergei Prokofiev (1921)

The 1920s in the Soviet Union, as elsewhere, were roaring with invention. Sergei Prokofiev, after several years abroad, returned to Russia in 1927. On the day of his departure, January 13, he wrote in his diary:

Today is the day we leave for Russia. Today, also, therefore, we must empty the flat in rue Troyon and clean up, check the inventory, pack up—everything in a frantic rush. We were even worried we might not get everything done in time to catch the train. One of the suitcases we had just bought turned out not to have its keys. Gorchakov, who claims to be a scout, could not do up a single parcel properly, although he said he had learnt how to do scouts’ knots. And as things turned out we did have to hurry! We had to leave various items at the Publishing House on the way to the station—suitcases, pictures, etc.—and so we arrived only ten minutes before the train was due to depart. . . . The train was quite luxurious, blue with gold trimmings—I chose this one specially, quite adamantly, so that no one could think of us condescendingly (‘Poor wretches, what must they be in for, going back to the Bolsheviks!’) [Prokofiev, Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, p. 3]

In his diary, Prokofiev described the first Soviet performance of his Quintet, Op. 39, which he had composed in 1924.

After the violin pieces came the Quintet, and here the Moscow musicians surpassed themselves, playing with unexpected brilliance and enthusiasm. The piece sounded excellent. Of course in time it will be played even better, but even so this performance is far superior to the one in Boston when Koussevitsky said to me, ‘My dear, this thing doesn’t “sound” at all.’ [Prokofiev, Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, p. 133]

Prokofiev was not alone in pushing musical boundaries, still free to explore modernist invention before the Soviet authorities clamped down. It was during this period that Gavriil Popov, at age 22, wrote his Septet in C major, Op. 2 (1927), which he later entitled Chamber Symphony. Alex Ross wrote of the work:

His breakout work was the Chamber Symphony of 1927 . . . . The instrumentation, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass, recalls Histoire du Soldat, and you also hear echoes of the Hindemith of the Kammermusik series. There are trace elements of jazz, but only in the distant Soviet understanding of the word — fox-trots and other café styles. Popov had a real gift for melody, even as he constantly undercut his lyric flights with murmurs of disaster. . . . The Trio theme in the second movement is almost like Copland — a plainspoken song in the flute over static accompaniment. The Largo is absolutely magical: midway through comes a high, sad, slow, bewitching violin theme over a funky bass vamp. The fast passages are full of rhythmic surprises, unusual tonal combinations, nasty little dances that start and stop. [cite]

Popov was a student at the Leningrad Conservatory at the same time as Dmitri Shostakovich. Ross wrote:

The two composers together make an interesting case study in the difference between raw talent and genius. Shostakovich showed the world a helpless, vulnerable facade, but he had an inner tenacity that carried him through the Stalinist crisis. He also had a certain canniness, a knack for plotting the twists and turns of his career, which we never like to acknowledge as an ingredient of genius. Popov, exploding with talent but lacking that eerie detachment from his creative self, collapsed under the outward pressure. He felt obligated to produce programmatic Socialist-Realistic pieces on a regular basis (Komsomol Is The Chief of Electrification). He became a raging alcoholic. [cite]

Also in 1927, the conductor Nikolai Malko bet Shostakovich that he couldn’t re-orchestrate Vincent Youmans’ Tea for Two in less than an hour. Shostakovich won the bet, producing Tahiti Trot, as the song is known in Russia, in forty minutes. [Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Second Edition, p. 71]

Bonus Tracks

The Larionov portrait of Prokofiev may be found at multiple sources on the internet. With thanks to David Nice, once again, for his Russian Music course, the gift that keeps on giving every week.


13 thoughts on “Going Back to the Bolsheviks

  1. shoreacres

    The transformation of “Tea for Two” into “Tahiti Trot” is one of the odder musical tales I’ve heard. I suppose “Trotsky Trot” wouldn’t have done.

  2. Susan Scheid Post author

    I’m curious about that, too. Haven’t found anything to explain it. And yup, I’d say you’re on the money that “Trotsky Trot” wouldn’t have done.

  3. larrymuffin

    I always felt that Sergei Prokofiev was a bit of a naive fool to return to the USSR when you think of the horrors that followed and he witnessed. Also in 1927 Russia was coming out of a civil war. He was not politically astute.

    1. David Nice

      Laurent, I can’t believe you wrote that when you’ve actually read my Volume One. The truth is far more nuanced. And of course he had no intention of going back to live in 1927. He really thought things had changed by 1936 – and he had good reasoning, but extremely bad timing. Maybe you should join Will for the classes…we’ll be covering all that soon. Meanwhile, thanks to Sue for being the best of students (even if she does quote Alex Ross…)

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David: Thank you for bringing us the facts on the ground–and of course I laughed out loud at your comment on Alex Ross. I had a premonition I’d be in trouble for that!

        1. David Nice

          There’s actually nothing wrong with what he writes, and at least he’s taken it up, but I just have a bit of a beef with the idea of Alex Ross as Russian music expert and with The Rest is Noise generally. The Wagnerism book is necessarily partial but has so many more revelations (to me, at any rate)

          1. Susan Scheid Post author

            I think for you, with such a huge wealth of knowledge on Russian music, Ross would not come close to being a Russian music expert. I don’t actually see him as a Russian music expert (does he even see himself that way?). For me, his book The Rest Is Noise, along with Hallelujah Junction, provided a helpful, general introduction to 20th C classical music of all sorts.

  4. Susan Scheid Post author

    It was definitely a strange choice, though I’ll have to leave it to David to shed light on his motivation. It’s interesting to read the 1927 diary (and a good read, too, as he is a lucid writer, even in this form) to see how he took it all in on his return.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Thanks so much for the heads up! I’ve registered, and was particularly glad to see there’s a period after the live stream when it will still be available, so if I miss the time slot, I’m not out of luck.

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