Classical Music

How Josef Stalin Stole Sergei Prokofiev's Flowers

In can be easily argued that Russian born composer Sergei Prokofiev, who would have been 120 this week, was the most popular 20th century composer. As a sheet-music salesman, we can tell you that only Scott Joplin and Ennio Morricone come close to the number of requests for Prokofiev.

Yet the composer himself is often maligned as a sympathizer to the oppressive rule of Josef Stalin. In and of itself, that is the final irony, as the composer was denied the sendoff he was deserved by despot Josef Stalin.

Like a lot of people, artists especially, Prokofiev left Russia after the 1917 revolution that brought the Communists to power. As Prokofiev's music was highly experimental, and unlikely to thrive under the new totalitarian regime, he decided to move to America to continue his career.

Stalin's regime was actually pretty cool about the whole thing. No less a figure than People's Commisar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky told Prokofiev, "You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way."

The composer pined for his homeland, and returned there in the 1930s. He was lulled by promises of continued artistic freedom by the Soviets, but he was quickly drafted to write flowing, flowery musical praise to Stalin's dream. Eventually, his work fell out of favor, and Prokofiev lived in poor health and near poverty in a small apartment just off Red Square.

He did not live to see the end of Stalin... by about 50 minutes. Both men died on March 5, 1953, and it was this coincidence that Stalin's regime dealt Prokofiev his final indignity.

The crowds in Red Square mourning Stalin's passing were so thick that Prokofiev's body couldn't even be removed for three days. His death made page 116 in the papers. Pages 1-115 were dedicated to Stalin.

Adding further insult, no musicians could be found to play the great composer's funeral. Every musician of any note was ordered to perform at Stalin's funeral and the various surrounding festivities. Prokofiev's family was reduced to playing a recording of the funeral march from his ballet Romeo and Juliet.

In the wake of Stalin's death, the loss of perhaps Russia's greatest musician went almost completely unremarked. Only 40 people attended the funeral. Most heartbreaking of all, the Soviet leadership ordered every florist in Moscow to exhaust their stock on Stalin's funeral. Prokofiev's family defiantly festooned his casket with paper flowers.

Prokofiev's reputation as a sympathizer to a regime that almost starved him to death continues even today. Few are aware that his wife and children were held as hostages to ensure his cooperation.

Few are aware that he was only able to obtain food when a young, popular cellist stormed the Composers Union and badgered them into providing some money to feed the sick genius.

Other composers like Dmitri Shostakovich survived Stalin and went on to eradicate his grip on their work. However, because Prokofiev died with him he never lived to vindicate himself as a victim of the era he lived in rather than a perpetrator.

In the end, he was denied even flowers by Stalin.

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner