Rare 1946 Film: The Great Russian Composer Sergei Prokofiev Plays Piano, Discusses His Music

In 1946 the great Russ­ian com­pos­er Sergei Prokofiev was at the height of his suc­cess in the Sovi­et cul­tur­al world, but the state of his health was falling.

Only a year before, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Con­ser­va­to­ry, Prokofiev had con­duct­ed the glo­ri­ous pre­mier per­for­mance of his wide­ly praised Fifth Sym­pho­ny. “The hall was prob­a­bly lit as usu­al,” remem­bered the pianist Svi­atoslav Richter, who was there, “but when Prokofiev stood up, it seemed as though the light poured down on him from on high. He stood there, like a mon­u­ment on a pedestal.” But a few days lat­er Prokofiev faint­ed and took a ter­ri­ble fall, injur­ing his head and near­ly dying as a result. The diag­no­sis was severe high blood pres­sure. Prokofiev’s doc­tors advised him to move away from Moscow to some­place qui­et, so in the sum­mer of 1946 he pur­chased a dacha in the wood­ed sub­urb of Nikoli­na Gora.

A short time lat­er a gov­ern­ment film crew vis­it­ed the 55-year-old Prokofiev at his new home. The clip above is one of two sur­viv­ing takes, accord­ing to Simon Mor­ri­son of Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, author of The Peo­ple’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Sovi­et Years. In the film, Prokofiev sits at the piano and plays a selec­tion from one of the waltzes in his bal­let Cin­derel­la, which had pre­miered the pre­vi­ous fall at the Bol­shoi The­atre. The com­pos­er then walks over to his desk and is asked to say a few words about what he is work­ing on. His reply, as trans­lat­ed on YouTube:

Well, right now I am work­ing on a sym­phon­ic suite of waltzes, which will include three waltzes from Cin­derel­la, two waltzes from War and Peace and one waltz from the movie score Ler­mon­tov. The War and Peace has just been bril­liant­ly pro­duced in Leningrad, where the com­pos­er Cheshko made an espe­cial­ly note­wor­thy appear­ance as a tenor, giv­ing a superb per­for­mance in the role of Pierre Bezukhov. Besides this suite, I am work­ing on a sonata for vio­lin and piano [No. 1 in F minor], upon com­ple­tion of which I will resume work on the Sixth Sym­pho­ny, which I had start­ed last year. I have just com­plet­ed thre suites from the Cin­derel­la bal­let and I am now turn­ing the score over to copy­ists for writ­ing the parts, so that most like­ly the suites will already be per­formed at the begin­ning of the fall sea­son.

The video con­cludes with a frag­ment of silent footage which, accord­ing to Mor­ri­son, shows Prokofiev play­ing the caden­za of the finale of his Third Piano Con­cer­to at Moscow in 1927 with “Per­sim­fans,” an ear­ly Sovi­et orches­tra that oper­at­ed with­out a con­duc­tor, in keep­ing with the pro­le­tar­i­an ideals of the rev­o­lu­tion. The rare films offer a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse of the great com­poser’s play­ing tech­nique. As Mor­ri­son told us in an email:

The footage tak­en at Nikoli­na Gora clear­ly shows that he had mas­sive hands, flu­id (if a lit­tle rusty) tech­nique, and awk­ward­ly rigid pos­ture. He plays from the fore­arms down, metro­nom­i­cal­ly, with an ease and finesse that indis­putably con­tributed to his tech­nique of chro­mat­ic dis­place­ment (play­ing music in one key or tonal­i­ty but then inflect­ing it with pitch­es from oth­er tonal areas). His was an intu­itive man­ner of com­po­si­tion, influ­enced by the nat­ur­al feel of the key­board under his hands–slide-slipping between black and white keys, as shad­ows of one anoth­er.

Less than two years after the Nikoli­na Gora news­reel footage was made, Prokofiev’s life took a bad turn. On Feb­ru­ary 10, 1948 he was accused, along with Dmitri Shos­tokovich and oth­ers, of “for­mal­ism,” which the pianist and Prokofiev schol­ar Boris Berman describes as “a polit­i­cal libel in the guise of an aes­thet­ic term.” For­mal­ist art was viewed as being elit­ist and “unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic” for its pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with form over con­tent. As a result, Prokofiev and the oth­ers were unable to per­form or broad­cast their work. And just ten days after his denun­ci­a­tion, Prokofiev’s wife Lina was arrest­ed and charged with “espi­onage” for try­ing to send mon­ey to her moth­er in Spain. She was sen­tenced to 20 years in prison. Stress from the crises caused Prokofiev’s health to dete­ri­o­rate fur­ther, and on March 5, 1953 he died from a cere­bral hem­or­rhage. Joseph Stal­in died the same day.

h/t Matthew Barnes

Relat­ed con­tent:

Tchaikovsky’s Voice Cap­tured on an Edi­son Cylin­der (1890)

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Comments (5)
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  • Rodney Michie says:

    Thanks for your post. Indeed, a fas­ci­nat­ing clip. Inci­den­tal­ly, the extract Prokofiev is play­ing is the Waltz “Since We Met” from War and Peace.
    All the best.

  • add commentwww.google.com/m?q=anne777.over-blog.org%2Farticle-13528896.html&client=ms-opera-mini&channel=new

  • Incred­i­bly impres­sive treasures…Thanks

  • George Barth says:

    11March 2017

    I’m seek­ing copy­right clear­ance to use a clip from this video – 38 sec­onds, only the por­tion dur­ing which Prokofiev plays – as stream­ing video for an Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press project, a schol­ar­ly paper based on pre­sen­ta­tion I gave at the Smith­son­ian Institution’s sym­po­sium “His­tor­i­cal­ly Informed Per­for­mance in Amer­i­can High­er Edu­ca­tion” in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. on 9 May 2015, and at the Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Jacobs School of Music con­fer­ence “His­tor­i­cal Per­for­mance: The­o­ry, Prac­tice, and Inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty” on 21 May 2016, to be pub­lished both in print and elec­tron­ic form in the sum­mer 2017 issue of IU’s His­tor­i­cal Per­for­mance Jour­nal, with audio and video clips, score excerpts and oth­er ele­ments drawn from var­i­ous sources.

    This request is for per­mis­sion to make the excerpt avail­able indef­i­nite­ly to the pub­lic with no restric­tion, a non-exclu­sive, irrev­o­ca­ble, and roy­al­ty-free per­mis­sion, and it is not intend­ed to inter­fere with oth­er uses of the same work by you. I would be pleased to include a full cita­tion to the work and oth­er acknowl­edge­ment as you might request.

    Please feel free to con­tact me at this email address with any ques­tions you may have.

    Thanks for your help!


    George Barth
    Pro­fes­sor, Music
    Bil­lie Ben­nett Achilles Direc­tor of Key­board Pro­grams
    Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty
    (650) 725‑2691 (office)

  • Ralph Brown says:

    Dear George
    As I under­stand the rai­son d’etre of Open Cul­ture
    is to pro­vide access to the whole world the var­i­ous trea­sures on dis­play here.
    It’s yours to use !
    Kind regards

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