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A Walk with Prokofiev

A Walk with Prokofiev

on May 10, 2016


The composer Prokofiev was born 125 years ago this April, and this walk takes you around some of the buildings in Moscow associated with his life and work. This circular walk will take about an hour, and you might like to download some of the works referred to so you can listen to them as you walk.

The walk begins at the Moscow Operetta Theatre at 6 Bolshaya Dmitrovka on the corner of Kopyevskiy Pereulok

Moscow Operetta TheatreProkofiev was born in Ukraine where his father was the manager of a large estate. His mother, Maria, encouraged a love of music and Prokofiev was just five years old when he first started composing small pieces. When Prokofiev was eight years old his parents brought him to Moscow for the first time. Whilst here, they saw Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi theatre as well as two operas at this theatre. It was the production here of Goethe’s Faust that really caught the young Prokofiev’s imagination, and he returned home writing plays that “inevitably included a duel – the result of Faust’s duel” and began composing his own opera The Giant.

Walk down Kopyevskiy Pereulok and turn right into Theatre Square, take a seat on one of the many benches while you read a little more about Prokofiev’s early life.

As a teenager Prokofiev was enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatory where he studied both the piano and composition. By the time he graduated he was already regularly giving piano recitals and had a number of his own compositions published. His mother’s graduation gift was a trip to London where the influential Ballet Russes was performing. Prokofiev was introduced to Diaghilev, the founder of the company, and in 1915 Prokofiev was given a contract with the Ballet Russes for his ballet Chout. This was a real turning point for the young composer – orchestras and theatres which had previously shown little interest were now prepared to perform his work.

In 1918 during the civil war Prokofiev left Russia, driven more by the need to earn money than, it would seem, by any objection to the aims of the new government (Prokofiev was by then the sole means of support for his mother). Prokofiev spent the next decade as a pianist touring the United States, London and Paris as well as composing. During this time he also met his Spanish wife, Lina, with whom he had two sons.

Immediately across the busy main road from where you are sitting is the Metropol hotel.

Metropol HotelIn 1927 Prokofiev visited Russia, invited by the Soviet authorities and stayed here at the Metropol hotel. He wrote in his diary: “we feel completely stunned by Moscow, but I am at all times solidly conscious of the fact that the Bolsheviks are adept at showing off in order to impress foreigners.” He gave a series of eight concerts, returning again in 1929, and from 1932 onwards he spent longer periods working in Russia.

Turn back so you are facing the beautiful Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi TheatreMuch as Prokofiev loved the visits to his homeland he can have been under no illusions about the censorship in Russia and the potential difficulties in getting his work performed. During his visit in 1929 he came here to the Bolshoi theatre to see the “audition” of his work Le Pas d’acier which had been a big hit in both Paris and London. The audition process was to allow directors of the company and members of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) to decide whether or not the work could be staged. The last Act takes place inside a factory with the dancers seeming to become part of the machinery. Prokofiev was asked by the RAPM members whether the factory scene portrayed “a capitalist factory where the worker is a slave, or a Soviet factory where the worker is the master? If it is a Soviet factory, where and when did Prokofiev examine it since …he has been living abroad?” Prokofiev refused to answer a question that “concerns politics, not music” and the rest of the meeting did not go well. The Bolshoi directors had no choice but to turn the ballet down.

Turn right along the main road (Okhotny Ryad) pausing at the bottom of Tverskaya Ulitsa to look at the building on the opposite corner of Tverskaya, the Hotel National.

Hotel NationalDespite setbacks such as his meeting at the Bolshoi, Prokofiev returned permanently to Russia in 1936 and initially stayed here at the Hotel Nationale. It was in the hotel that he met Natalia Satz, director of the Central Children’s Theatre to discuss her idea for a piece of music that would introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra. She suggested a “symphonic fairytale with the musical development accompanied by, guided by, narration.” The result of their collaboration was Prokofiev’s much loved Peter and the Wolf. Returning to Russia also resulted in Prokofiev’s collaboration with the influential film director Eisenstein. You may not have seen the film Alexander Nevsky for which Prokofiev composed the score in 1937, but you will have seen other films which have copied the same technique to heighten the tension before a battle scene. In the influential “Battle on the Ice” scene, all sounds of horses charging and men shouting is removed and instead Eisenstein allows Prokofiev’s dramatic music to build until the two armies finally clash.

Turn right up Tverskaya Ulitsa and walk uphill using the underpass crossing by Number 4 (which is a nice sloping easy one for anyone coming with a stroller) to reach Gazetnyy Pereulok. Continue along Gazetnyy Pereulok and turn right into Bolshaya Nikitskaya. Continue along until you reach the junction with Malyy Kislovskiy Pereulok where you will find the Mayakovskogo Theatre.

Myakovsky Theatre MoscowThis theatre used to be that of the influential director Meyerhold who pioneered a technique called biomechanics which trained actors in skills such as gymnastics, boxing and fencing to improve their physical self-expression. Meyerhold had been involved in Prokofiev’s work from as early as 1917 when he suggested the material for Prokofiev’s opera Love for Three Oranges, and worked with him on a number of occasions including producing his opera The Gambler, and fighting Prokofiev’s corner in that disastrous meeting with the RAPM at the Bolshoi. In 1938 Meyerhold was accused of “systematic deviation from Soviet reality, political distortion of that reality, and hostile slanders against our way of life” and his theatre was closed. In 1939 Meyerhold was working as a producer for Prokofiev’s opera Semyon Kotko when he was arrested and charged with working as a foreign agent. He was tortured, tried and shot.

Retrace your steps back down Bolshaya Nikitskaya to number 13 where you’ll find the Moscow Conservatory with it’s statue of Tchaikovsky outside. Take a seat on one of the benches while you read a little more about Prokofiev’s life.

Being associated with Meyerhold was dangerous and Prokofiev’s next few compositions were overtly patriotic, he was even asked to write a piece for Stalin’s 60th birthday. The piece Zdravitsa was a great hit with the authorities broadcast “in all the squares and streets of Moscow”, Prokofiev’s son Oleg recalled how, as an eleven year old, he was walking home when he heard the music in the streets.

I ran home and announced “Papa, they’re playing you in the streets through loudspeakers!” But he was quite indifferent; the matter was never discussed again.”

Moscow ConservatoryThe war years were frustrating for Prokofiev as time and again performances of his work were cancelled or seriously delayed due to evacuations of theatre companies. Not all performances were cancelled and it was here at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1945 that Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was premiered. The pianist Richter recalled:

“When Prokofiev mounted the podium and silence set in, artillery salvos suddenly thundered. His baton was raised. He waited, and until the cannon fire ceased, he didn’t begin.”

It was to be the last time that Prokofiev was to appear as a conductor. Just a few days later he had an attack of dizziness and had a serious fall. His health recovered, at least to a certain extent, and when the war ended many of his works finally got their premieres. In 1946 he won first-class Stalin prizes for the Fifth Symphony, Eighth Piano Sonata, his ballet Cinderella and his score for Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible.

Cross to the other side of Bolshaya Nikitskaya and walk along Bryusov Pereulok until you find number 8 (opposite a playground) which was the headquarters of the Union of Soviet Composers.

Bryusov Pereulok 8Unfortunately Prokofiev’s good fortune was not to last. In January 1948 the Union of Soviet Composers denounced and sacked Prokofiev, Shostakovich and two of their other directors. In a week of meetings their “failures” were highlighted and many of Prokofiev’s works were banned including the ballets he had written while abroad – labelled “evil products of bourgeois tendencies”. Prokofiev wrote to the Union’s Central Committee seeking to smooth things over but it was not enough. Although Prokofiev no longer lived with his Spanish wife, Lina, she still lived in Moscow with their two sons. In February 1948 Lina was arrested and charged with “spying and betrayal of the Motherland”. Prokofiev’s sons watched as their apartment was searched, and papers, family photographs and mementos were taken. They then walked the 16 kilometres to their father’s dacha where “overawed, he stayed silent” on hearing the terrible news. Lina was sentenced to twenty-years in the Gulag. Coming so shortly after his own denouncement there was little Prokofiev could do to help.

For the next few years, and in declining health, Prokofiev struggled to get much of his work performed although there was a rehabilitation of sorts in the early 1950s when a few pieces were premiered. He continued until the end of his life to compose new works and gained much from working with a new generation of Russian musicians  – in particular the pianist Richter and cellist Rostropovich for whom he composed his Cello Concerto. Prokofiev died on the 5th of March 1953, exactly the same day as Stalin, and he is buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery.

Let’s end up on a high note though by returning to 1918. Cross back over Tverskaya Ulitsa to number 6 which was once the site of the Poet’s Café. 

6 Tverskaya UlitsaSituated in a basement, the Poet’s Café was, as the name suggests, a place for poets to perform their work. It was a favourite haunt of the Futurist poet, Myakovsky who was a great fan of Prokofiev’s work and once presented him with a copy of one of his poems dedicated with the words: “To the World President for Music, from the World President for Poetry.” In March 1918 on a trip to Moscow, Prokofiev visited the Poet’s Café where he gave a performance of several of his works including his piece Suggestion diabolique, The poet Vasily Kamensky later wrote about the performance:

It seemed that the café was on fire and that the rafters and door frame…were crashing to the ground, and we stood, ready to be burned alive in the fire of this unprecedented music.

If you turn left into Kamergersky Pereulok you will find at number 6 the apartment that Prokofiev lived from 1947 until his death (photo at the top of the page). The apartment is now a museum and is open Wed-Sun from 11:00 to 18:00.

If you want to find out more about Prokofiev, I can highly recommend the biography by the music journalist Daniel Jaffe (which provided much of the material for this walk). Many theatres and concert halls are performing Prokofiev’s lesser known works (and the famous ones too!) during 2016 including the Bolshoi and the Stanislavsky. Further afield, if you are in London, then you might like to know that Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky (taken from the film score) will be performed at the opening night of the 2016 BBC Proms.

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