Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev

The compilation SELECTED LETTERS OF SERGEI PROKOFIEV, many about very ordinary things, reveals much about the personality of Sergei Prokofiev. Most of all, it shows his single-minded commitment to his art despite what for most people would be insuperable difficulties. Just as his career was beginning, World War I severely restricted his ability to tour the European music capitals. The Russian Revolution of 1917 compounded these restrictions and tied him first to the Russian provinces and subsequently kept him out of Russia entirely.

Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario, helped spread appreciation for Prokofiev’s music, but the irony was that even as Prokofiev became more Europeanized Russia thought of him as less Russian, certainly so when compared with his contemporary, Dmitri Shostakovich. General audiences thought Prokofiev’s music less avant-garde than that of Diaghilev’s other protege, Igor Stravinsky, but the fact that it seemed more academic made it harder to gain broad popular approval.

Josef Stalin, more than anyone or anything, had the single greatest negative influence on Prokofiev’s career. Soviet Realism became the paradigm for composers to follow and failure to do so could have consequences ranging from censorship to imprisonment. It was no coincidence that Prokofiev remained outside the Soviet Union until 1939 and in relative obscurity during the course of World War II. It was, however, exquisite irony that both he and Stalin died on the very same day, March 5, 1953.

Harlow Robinson’s collection includes a selection of Prokofiev’s letters to Diaghilev, composer Vernon Duke, violinist Jascha Heifetz, conductor Serge Koussevitsky, and film director Sergei Eisenstein. It also contains letters to less known people, individuals with whom Prokofiev studied or who befriended him during his self-imposed exile. The selection is arranged in chapters by correspondent rather than by strict chronology. This emphasizes the course each of these friendships followed rather than the biographical events upon which the letters touch.