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Rostropovich’s Recollections

Simon Morrison is Professor of Music at Princeton University. He is the author of The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years and the editor of Prokofiev and His World. He restored the original, uncensored version of Romeo and Juliet for the Mark Morris Dance Group, which enjoyed its world premier in 2008. Morrison previously blogged for us about the 1938 premier of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. In this article, Morrison looks at Prokofiev’s relationship to another Soviet musician/composer: Mstislav Rostropovich.

There exist several histories of Soviet music, but they are all hobbled by an absence of primary source documentation about crucial events: the circumstances surrounding the denunciation of Dmitriy Shostakovich in 1936, for example, or the anti-modernist resolution of 1948. The gaps have been filled by anecdotes, memoirs, generalizations, and ideological axe-grinding. Every eyewitness to the Stalinist period—the worst of all times in terms of thought control—seems to have a sorrowful tale to tell of censorship and deprivation, sometimes supplemented with fanciful accounts of defiance. Granted the system was monstrous, but it did have its perks, as evidenced by the career of the eminent cellist and (later) conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. In his early 20s, Rostropovich received the privilege of showcasing his talent at foreign competitions and the opportunity to serve as a cultural diplomat. Not bad for a kid from Baku. An official document from the Russian State Archive of Social-Political History lists the places he visited in 1949 and 1950: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Germany, and Czechoslovakia again. Concerts in Western nations followed, as did material benefits and access to the greatest Soviet composers, who composed sonatas and concertos for him.

Rostropovich lived a long time (much of it outside of Russia), and recounted his amazing career to numerous biographers. His conversations with the musicologist and cellist Elizabeth Wilson, one of his students at the Moscow Conservatory, inspired a quasi-hagiographic narrative of a selfless servant to his art. The book in question, Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher and Legend, claims that Rostropovich “was no less talented as a composer than a cellist” who could “tackle the virtuoso piano repertoire with ease.” In the late 1950s, moreover, he reputedly “used his artistry to conquer every continent of the globe.”

The exultations are exaggerated, to be sure, but it would be petty to dwell on them: no one doubts that Rostropovich was a brilliant musician. The bigger question concerns his role in the composition of such works as Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante and Seventh Symphony. Rostropovich claimed that Prokofiev solicited his aid in assembling these and other scores. “If you would be willing to help me I’d be most grateful,” he recalled Prokofiev saying to him in 1948. “To hear such words,” he told Wilson, “sent me into total delirium.”

The Sinfonia Concertante had a tortured compositional history—it reuses material from Prokofiev’s Second Cello Concerto, which in turn reuses material from his First Cello Concerto—and Rostropovich certainly had a role in its creation. But so too did another cellist: Gregor Pyatigorsky. Prokofiev conceived the work in 1933 for Pyatigorsky while in Paris, but he did not complete it until 1938, after his relocation to Moscow. Pyatigorsky performed it in Boston on March 8, 1940. The reviews were poor, prompting Pyatigorsky to send Prokofiev a list of proposed changes.

In 1951, Rostropovich assisted Prokofiev in transforming the First Cello Concerto into the Second Cello Concerto and then further into the Sinfonia Concertante, but the level of Rostropovich’s involvement is unclear. The assumption that the two of them worked side by side on the score stems from a single newspaper report and a photograph (shown below). It is complicated by the primary source evidence, which reveals that Prokofiev composed the solo and accompanimental parts in relative solitude. Once the material was drafted, he gave the sketchbooks to Rostropovich for technical correction and refinement, who in turn forwarded them to Prokofiev’s assistant, Levon Atovmyan, for orchestration. Atovmyan was a skilled arranger and orchestrator as well as an instrumentalist. In fact, he played the cello.

Likewise problematic is the following anecdote Rostropovich offered about the final movement of the Second Cello Concerto:

Prokofiev incorporated a theme that was similar to a popular song by Vladimir Zakharov, an apparatchik who mercilessly vilified all “formalists.” After the work was played at the Composers’ Union, Zakharov stood up and said indignantly that he would write to the papers complaining that his own wonderful tune had been totally distorted. When I related this to Prokofiev he wrote a replacement tune (a waltz, which I never played), and said that once everything had settled down we could quietly revert to the original tune.

This is a great story, but it is inaccurate. Zakharov did arrange a song that shares points with Prokofiev’s, but a much better rhythmic and melodic match comes from the Minsk composer Isaak Lyuban. Zakharov’s duple-meter tune, titled “Be of Good Health” (Bud’te zdorovї), dates from 1937; Lyuban’s triple-meter “Our Toast” (Nash tost) was written in 1942. Both songs became popular during the war, and both tended to be performed in concert in different variations, a practice good-humoredly reprised by Prokofiev in his score. Here is Rostropovich performing the passage in question in 1970 in Monte Carlo (view from 3:17):

Finally, there is the account of the creation of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony in 1952, which Rostropovich characterizes as a lighthearted composition intended for children, not, as its critics allege, a lackluster product of political pressure. Rostropovich recalled teaming up with the pianist Anatoly Vedernikov to perform a reduction of the score for the Soviet Radio Committee bureaucrats who had commissioned it. They loved it and, in Wilson’s words,

A delighted Rostropovich hurried away to buy a cake and bottle of champagne to celebrate with Prokofiev. The composer had not attended the audition because of ill health, but as soon as he heard of the successful outcome, he rubbed out the title “Children’s Symphony” from the score. Rostropovich asked him what he was doing, to which Prokofiev replied: “Since the adults seem to like it so much, let’s just call the work the seventh symphony.”

I have looked at the manuscript of the Seventh Symphony in question—looked hard at it, in fact—and seen no evidence that Prokofiev changed its title. Prokofiev, for his part, confirmed in a journal that he sought counsel from Rostropovich while composing the symphony, but that in one instance he regretted doing so. “Because the cellists complained that the coda of the second movement is difficult for them to play, I consulted with Rostropovich about simplifying their parts before sending the Symphony to the publisher. Now that it has been published, the cellists can’t seem to play it at all. Either [the conductor] has sped it up, or Rostropovich gave me bad advice.” Perhaps we, like Prokofiev, should not give our trust so freely.

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