Commentary Magazine


Prokofiev

To the Editor:

In “A New Look at Prokofiev” [April], Samuel Lipman says that Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace has never been produced in the U.S. by a major opera company. . . . He goes on to say that such a production is long overdue.

Mr. Lipman is apparently unaware of Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston. Her “minor” company performed the U.S. premiere of this opera on May 8, 10, and 12, 1974 and then repeated the opera four times in 1980.

This provincial event had certain “Boston” features, including the fact that Prokofiev’s wife, Mira Mendelssohn, was librettist and Tanya Tolstoy aided in the translation. . . .

The local press lauded Caldwell’s performance, as did Newsweek and the New York Times.

R. M. Santer
Charlestown, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Samuel Lipman’s article about Prokofiev was informative in its description of Prokofiev’s work, and its evaluation of his relationship to the Soviet regime. But Mr. Lipman overlooks a significant issue. In listing groups to which Stalin was paying “murderous attention,” he omits the most important—religious communities.

Prokofiev made a notable contribution to the anti-religious campaign through his close collaboration with the director Sergei Eisenstein on the film Alexander Nevsky. This is not only one of the most powerful films ever made, but also one of the most virulently anti-Christian. The attack on Christianity is twofold, by commission and by omission.

The enemy in the film is not the Teutonic knights, but rather the Roman Catholic Church. All of the symbolism surrounding the knights is Christian. They are pictured as being led and dominated by a malevolent cleric. He is portrayed in viciously stereotypical terms, as a physically repulsive, sly, cowering, behind-the-scenes manipulator. Sinister music accompanies his every appearance, and he is even shown organizing a “ritual murder”—the knights hold babies up to receive the sign of the cross and then toss them into a bonfire.

The Russians, by contrast, are presented as a people devoid of religion. True, church buildings are shown, since without them the country would not look like Russia, but no recognizably religious activity, ceremony, or symbol is shown in connection with the Russians. No recognizably religious statement is uttered; no recognizable Russian cleric is depicted. Yet at the time of Alexander Nevsky, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church was preeminent.

The message is unmistakably clear. Russians are a healthy, vigorous, nonreligious people. Christianity is an alien, militaristic, baby-burning religion. The film was released at the height of the attack on the Russian Church, which was being annihilated. . . .

It has been suggested that the film was a premonition of the Nazi invasion to come. However, Alexander Nevsky, who represents Stalin in the film, argues that the Russians should attack the invaders of their own territory. Given the location of Pskov, near the border of the Baltic states, this suggests Stalin’s forthcoming occupation of those states. . . .

Charles E. Ford
Saint Louis, Missouri

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Samuel Lipman writes:

In pointing out Sarah Caldwell’s production of War and Peace, R.M. Santer objects to my evident unwillingness to see her Opera Company of Boston as “major.” If descriptive terms are to retain any meaning in this age of artistic inflation, then the word “major” must not be left to the assertions of publicists and well-wishers. The criteria for major-company status are length of season, number of productions, size of budget, and consistency of results. Therefore, only four operatic institutions in the United States can be said to deserve the appellation. They are the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the San Francisco Opera; it is too early to make a judgment on the new venture in Los Angeles. I wish that Sarah Caldwell’s penchant for doing, on occasion, important repertory in interesting ways were more widely evident among the majors. Sadly, her virtues in this area cannot substitute for her lack of institutional strength, and the history of such strength.

Charles E. Ford raises an important issue: the presence in Alexander Nevsky of powerful anti-religious elements. It may be remarked that Stalin’s campaign against the religion of Christianity was part and parcel of his furtherance of the religion of Stalin. His campaign in the 1930′s to revive Russian patriotism as a bulwark against the German threat was indeed predicated on his own status as the ultimate leader of the Soviet Union. In permitting Eisenstein to make a film (with music by Prokofiev) on the historical Alexander Nevsky’s war against the Teutonic knights, Stalin was certainly aware of Nevsky’s position in Russian history as (in James H. Billington’s phrase) “the patron saint of St. Petersburg”; because of this mythic status, Peter the Great named the city’s great monastic center for Nevsky. Carrying on a war of extinction against the Russian Orthodox Church, a war begun by Lenin, hardly precluded Stalin from seeing in the holy and victorious Nevsky a precursor of his own Marxist-saintly and nation-saving genius. Because Stalin saw himself as Russia’s redeemer, it was not difficult for him to combine his murderous irreligion with the arousing of national feeling. In 1938, when Eisenstein and Prokofiev were working on Nevsky, Hitler’s Germany was Stalin’s enemy; only after August 1939 did it become a friend. This renversement tells us something we need to know about Soviet foreign policy; it cannot obscure the fact that the Nevsky film began life as a patriotic effort.

What was Prokofiev’s moral responsibility in so closely collaborating on what Mr. Ford calls “one of the most virulently anti-Christian films . . . ever made”? Prokofiev was a materialist and an unbeliever; he was also a Russian patriot. His work with Eisenstein on Nevsky and on the later Ivan the Terrible was, after all, another example of his cooperation with the Stalin regime, and, by implication, with its crimes. Does the fact of this complicity invalidate his work? Insofar as his work is seen only as an aesthetic object, I think it is not invalidated; if his work is to be viewed as a universal expression of the highest human values, I am afraid this complicity in tyranny is deeply relevant. I am not optimistic about the existence of a large amount of art that would completely pass this test of purity.

We are thus brought to the difficult problem of the moral nexus between art and life. What the exact nature of this nexus is, I don’t know. What I am sure of is that art which is not ultimately tied to the carrying on of life will finally forfeit our highest respect as art. I am also sure that a due regard for the independence of art from the crushing inroads of life is one of the values worth fighting for in life itself. In this regard, I can do no more than quote from the conclusion of my article:

. . . any attempt to extract apodictic lessons about the creation of art from our knowledge of the political circumstances which surround it is to reduce artistic creativity to the level of a recipe, as if writing a symphony were like baking a cake. This, indeed, was Stalin’s position; it need hardly be ours.

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