laughing at Stalin


In 1936, homesick despite the rewards of his life as a cosmopolitan virtuoso, Prokofiev returned to live in the country he had sarcastically nicknamed Bolshevizia. The decision ruined his life: he was hounded by cultural bureaucrats until 1953, when he died on the same day as Stalin (which must have been a sourly ironic consolation). But repatriation did wonders for his music. As a young man, he specialised, as he said, in “various degrees of the scherzo – whimsicality, laughter, mockery”. Now his doubts and torments gave him a sense of tragedy, audible in the Sixth Symphony, with its searing allusion to a redemptive motif from Wagner’s Parsifal, or in the bereaved lament of the woman who searches a corpse-littered battlefield in his score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

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