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Romeo in the Land of the Soviets: History of a Ballet

When Prokofiev returned to Soviet Russia after 17 years abroad, he struggled to conform to the regime's expectations of artists. His ballet, Romeo and Juliet, languished for years without a home. This film tells the story of its unexpected success.

AIRED: March 04, 2021 | 0:52:17
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TRANSCRIPT

[ "Romeo and Juliet" score playing ]

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[ "Dance of the Knights" playing ]

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Narrator: We may all be familiar with the "Dance of the Knights"

from "Romeo and Juliet" by Sergei Prokofiev,

but the ballet almost never saw the light of day.

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In spring 1935, after 17 years in exile,

the composer Sergei Prokofiev returned to his native Russia,

which had since become the Soviet Union.

The Bolshoi Theatre had commissioned a ballet from him,

"Romeo and Juliet," adapted from the Shakespeare play.

♪♪

Prokofiev, a follower of Christian Science,

was convinced that health and well-being

were within everybody's grasp.

Human beings had the power and the duty to improve their lives

and to oust evil by the simple action of their minds,

even in a new kind of society such as Stalin's Russia.

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[ Birds chirping ]

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Prokofiev: I'm spending the summer in Polenovo

at the property of the Bolshoi Theatre,

200 kilometers from Moscow.

It is a wonderful place.

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I've been given a small house

with a terrace overlooking the River Oka,

containing a Bluethner grand piano.

Conditions here are ideal for working.

There is total calm and silence.

I spend eight hours a day on the score of "Romeo and Juliet."

There are 58 movements in the ballet

and the list of them

has been carefully drawn up and annotated,

and nothing gives me more pleasure

than to mark off the composed movements with a cross.

A black cross when the music is being set out,

a red cross when the movement has been composed

and the score written.

[ Piano playing score ]

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At the time, our attempts to give "Romeo and Juliet"

a happy ending caused quite a fuss.

In the last act, Romeo arrives a minute earlier,

finds Juliet alive, and everything ends well.

The reasons for this barbarism were purely choreographic.

Living people can dance, the dying cannot.

Shakespearean specialists rushed to the defense

of the derided poet.

But that was not what convinced me.

It was when somebody remarked to me, "By its very nature,

your music does not express any real joy at the end."

And they were right.

The music for the ballet was written

over the course of the summer,

but the Bolshoi Theatre declared it impossible

to dance to and terminated the contract.

[ Kuchnerova speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: It's fantastic.

You can distinguish the pieces for the men and for the women.

They are clearly young girls,

young girls dancing with lily flowers.

[ Piano playing light notes ]

It's obvious they're girls.

And this, for example.

[ Piano playing heavy notes ]

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That's a man's dance. You can tell immediately.

What more could you need?

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What could be missing from that?

All you need to do is play it in rhythm

and the dancer will dance to it with no notion

that anything could be missing.

There's great cleverness in this music,

which lies precisely in the fact

that you can actually visualize everything that's going on.

I find this score remarkable.

You can really visualize the scene.

You can understand exactly what's happening.

You could even play it to schoolchildren and ask them,

"What can you see there?

What's happening? Go on, dance."

No one had done that before Prokofiev.

Narrator: Following the refusal of the Bolshoi Theatre,

Prokofiev extracted some suites from the score

of "Romeo and Juliet" for symphony orchestra.

He was aware of the quality of his music,

and he wanted it to be performed.

The suites met with tremendous success,

but nobody ever heard the full ballet score.

[ Levachov speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: When the music was associated with wonderful drama,

a musical drama, of course,

which was based on Shakespeare's work,

it took on a double aura --

the aura of Prokofiev

and the aura of Shakespeare.

[ "Romeo and Juliet" score playing ]

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[ Music stops ]

[ Music resumes ]

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Narrator: The future of music

lies in an unprecedented simplicity.

After the complexity of Bach

came the simplicity of Haydn and Mozart,

after Beethoven, the simplicity of Schubert,

after the phenomenal Wagner, "Carmen" by Bizet.

[ Soft classical music playing ]

Prokofiev: In my work on "Romeo and Juliet,"

I sought to attain similar simplicity,

capable of delighting all audiences.

Of course, certain spectators will try hard

to find complexities or a hidden meaning,

but there are none whatsoever.

I'm entirely convinced of that.

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My main objective was to write a piece of music

that was adapted for dance,

then it was critically important

the music convey the character's evolution,

particularly that of Juliet, a young 14-year-old girl,

a woman in love whose life came to a tragic end.

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And if audiences remain insensitive to my emotions

or remain deaf to the maladies, so be it.

But I'm nevertheless convinced that, sooner or later,

they will end up discovering them.

[ Rakhmanova speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev

was someone with highly developed moral values.

He wanted to live in his country.

He wanted to be a fully fledged citizen of his country.

He wanted to work for his country.

He had a great deal of integrity,

and he wanted his children

to be brought up in their homeland and not abroad.

With Lina Ivanovna, his first wife,

and their two sons, Sviatoslav and Oleg,

they lived in a hotel for a while.

Then they were allocated an apartment.

Prokofiev loved the apartment. He loved Moscow.

So he had the car sent over

that he'd bought during a tour of the U.S.,

and he found a good school for his sons.

[ Man singing in Russian ]

♪♪

Interpreter: Prokofiev finally felt at home.

For the entire duration of his stay in France,

he had been permanently moving between Paris,

Normandy and elsewhere.

He did not have his own house.

For all those years,

he did not have a place he could really call home.

And now he could finally feel at home.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: At the beginning of his career,

Prokofiev could be very daring and very impetuous.

He had a very varied range but had few half tones.

But after a while, his work became much richer,

filled with the most subtle nuances.

And just like the works of the major composers

of the Renaissance,

"Romeo and Juliet" was a combination of wisdom,

lyricism with a highly sophisticated range

and fantastic energy.

It's the pinnacle of his work.

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Narrator: In 1936, in the run-up to the bicentenary

of the Leningrad School of Choreography,

the school's director wanted to stage Prokofiev's new ballet,

"Romeo and Juliet," with their students.

So the musicologist, Sergei Slonimsky,

met with the composer.

Slonimsky: Prokofiev welcomed me coldly.

I said to him, "We want to stage your ballet."

"I don't believe it."

"The directors have made their decision."

"Shame. Now change their mind."

"Our director does not change his mind."

"He'll be made to see reason.

They'll judge the ballet immoral for children.

He won't find a theater to house it."

I corrected him.

"They're giving us the Kirov theater."

Prokofiev insisted, "You'll never find a choreographer.

The Bolshoi has already heard the music.

They measured it, tailored it and tailored it some more

to suit their own tastes and then refused it."

"We found a choreographer who's not like that."

The composer remains silent.

Sensing defeat, I asked him,

"Do you really not want to see your ballet on stage?"

Prokofiev looked up at me and broke into a smile.

"You say the choreographer is not like that,

that the director has taken his decision

and that a theater is available?"

And holding out his hand to me,

he said with a twinkle in his eye,

"Well, let's get to work then.

To hell with those who don't believe in it."

Narrator: But the ballet was never staged

at the Leningrad School of Choreography.

In late 1936, the same year,

Prokofiev decided to compose a cantata

for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution.

The authors of the text had impeccable credentials

from an ideological point of view.

They were called Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin,

and Joseph Stalin.

The choir part of the cantata started with the conclusion

of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach."

"Philosophers have hitherto

only interpreted the world in various ways;

the point is to change it."

Then came an extract of "What Is To Be Done?"

a political treatise by Lenin.

And hanging in the air like an occult epigraph,

Marx's sentence, "A spectre is haunting Europe,

the spectre of communism."

[ Men singing in Russian ]

Narrator: The cantata opens in apocalyptic fashion

with the decline of the West,

the decline of Western civilization.

The USSR was to rewrite history.

The apocalypse would be on the same magnitude as Russia.

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[ Rakhmanova speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: It is, in fact, a very avant-garde composition

in spite of the ideological nature of its text.

Having said that, they're not that ideological.

As they're extracts, they produce a dizzying effect.

Interpreter: At first, there were fewer texts by Stalin,

and the cantata ended with the refrain of the conclusion

of the thesis on Feuerbach.

But because the Stalin constitution was adopted

while Prokofiev was composing his cantata,

he had to acknowledge that,

which is why he added, among other texts,

Stalin's speech on the Constitution.

Prokofiev wanted his cantata to be performed on Red Square

on the day of the celebrations.

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Narrator: The unprecedented audacity

of the cantata alarmed the cautious apparatchiks

of the Committee of Artistic Affairs.

It was only performed for the first time 55 years later

in Great Britain and not in Russia.

The year 1938 got underway,

and the ballet "Romeo and Juliet"

was still shelved.

But Sergei Prokofiev received a friendly communication

from far afield -- from Hollywood.

His friend, Vladimir Dukelsky, an opera and symphony composer,

had become famous in the US.

Under the pseudonym Vernon Duke,

he had written numerous Broadway musical comedy hits

as well as jazz music.

Following the sudden death of George Gershwin,

Vernon Duke was entrusted to finish writing the score

for the film "The Goldwyn Follies,"

for which he wrote a few dance numbers.

In a friendly nod to Prokofiev,

he composed a burlesque "Romeo and Juliet."

Woman: I didn't know Romeo and Juliet died.

I'd want them to get up and their parents to come in

and forgive them and be married afterwards and be happy.

It's amazing.

No one ever thought of that for Romeo and Juliet.

But why not?

If 200 million people want Romeo and Juliet to live,

I won't be stubborn.

Now come on, get out of sight.

Ah, Mr. Murphy.

Yes, Mr. Merlin.

I want to change the ending.

Change the ending?

I want the lovers to stand up and dance.

I want the parents to come out.

I want everybody dancing.

I want the hearts of the world beating with love and triumph.

Come on, hurry up. Let's see it.

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[ Speaking native language ]

Interpreter: During his last trip to the US,

Prokofiev traveled to Hollywood

where Dukelsky showed him the ballet.

Prokofiev very much appreciated his friend's friendly nod

and liked the ballet.

He was also interested in the technical aspects,

like how the music was recorded and synchronized,

as he was already preparing to work with Sergei Eisenstein

on the film "Alexander Nevsky."

He also met Walt Disney

and gave him permission to use his music for the cartoon

"Peter and the Wolf," a wonderful animation.

Prokofiev made this last trip in 1938.

Interpreter: The premiere of "Romeo and Juliet"

took place in Brno,

but Prokofiev was unable to attend.

On returning to Russia,

he had exchanged his Nansen passport for a Soviet one.

From that fateful day, he was no longer authorized

to leave the country

and his living conditions changed dramatically.

He became a simple Soviet citizen.

The authorities would not let him leave,

not even to attend his own premiere.

Narrator: Finally, in autumn 1938,

the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad

decided to stage "Romeo and Juliet"

to a choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky.

Rehearsals were to last more than a year.

The dancers, including the stars

Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev,

did not immediately take to the music.

In her memoirs, the prima ballerina who ended up

considering the role of Juliet to be her favorite confessed...

Ulanova: The unusual nature of the music

and the frequent changes in rhythm

were very difficult for us to dance to.

Actually, we just weren't used to music like that.

We were even a little afraid of it.

During the rehearsals, we would sing a tune in our heads

that was nothing like Prokofiev's melody,

and we'd use that to try and express Romeo's love

for Juliet through dance.

Because at the time, I must admit,

we did not pick up on the feeling in his music.

Interpreter: Prokofiev attended a rehearsal at the Kirov Ballet

where Lavrovsky said to him,

"When you're in this spot, you can't hear the music."

Prokofiev answered, "That's impossible."

Lavrovsky invited him up on stage,

and sure enough, Prokofiev could not hear the music.

He agreed to amplify certain parts and reinforce others,

but he was not happy about it.

And when the dancers moaned, "Who are we burying?"

Prokofiev replied, "The dancers' ignorance."

Because for him, a dancer had to dance

as they did with Diaghilev's famous dance.

They did not need to hear the music.

The music was something totally independent.

Prokofiev could not, for the life of him,

understand why the dancers at the Bolshoi and the Kirov

had to dance as they did in the 19th century,

whereas everywhere else in the world,

dancers were already dancing differently.

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Interpreter: Until the morning of 11th January 1940,

no one knew whether or not the premiere would go ahead.

And when Prokofiev, his wife, Lina Ivanovna,

and Sergei Radlov, who co-wrote the libretto,

arrived at the theater,

they were half expecting it to be a total failure,

a catastrophe.

They even half expected the dancers not to dance.

Something had happened the day before the premiere

was scheduled that was quite unique in the history

of Soviet theater, music, or dramatic ballet,

especially during the Stalin era.

The entire troupe had had a meeting and had declared

that it was impossible to dance to Prokofiev's music.

The dancers almost went on strike.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Ulanova pulled it to pieces.

Everyone was sniggering and the critics were seething.

That's what my mother told me.

She was still living with Lavrovsky at the time.

Everyone was against it,

and yet the premiere was a triumph.

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Narrator: Prokofiev wrote to his friend Vernon Duke in the US...

Prokofiev: "My ballet, 'Romeo and Juliet,'

was produced at the Leningrad Opera in January

amidst great pomp and with the very best dancers.

They were rather wary to start with,

but when they received 15 curtain calls at the premiere,

they decided that new forms could be accepted

after all."

Interpreter: After the premiere, there was a small reception

which Prokofiev and the dancers attended.

Ulanova raised a toast saying,

"There is no tale of greater woe

than Prokofiev's music for Romeo."

♪♪

Narrator: Prokofiev burst out laughing, raised his glass,

and invited Ulanova to dance.

In her memoirs, the ballerina recounts

that Prokofiev danced so badly, he almost crushed her feet.

And that was despite the composer having taken lessons

to learn how to dance the foxtrot.

Vlassova: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: I think that Romeo was a very efficient move

on the part of the Soviet government

to arouse Prokofiev's interest

and to pull the wool over his eyes,

to the extent that he forgot

all about the unforeseen inconveniences of returning

to a country in which he didn't really understand

the political structure.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: It's the music of a man who really understands

what violent passion is.

But as far as I'm concerned,

that is exactly where the danger lay for Prokofiev.

He may have been in his prime,

but he knew he had never before experienced such passion.

This passion that appeared in his life

brought about the end of his marriage.

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Narrator: During the summer of 1938,

while he was on holiday in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus,

Prokofiev fell in love with a young woman

who was 24 years his younger.

As he admitted himself, it was love at first sight.

He spent a first summer with her,

then a second.

He sent her flowers.

She was constantly on his mind.

At first, his wife, Lina Ivanovna,

did not take his infatuation very seriously.

She knew that she was the mother of his children.

Matters of the heart were one matter,

but the home and the family were another.

Interpreter: Prokofiev was already nearly 50.

As far as I'm concerned, personally,

I side with Lina Ivanovna, his first wife.

She was most definitely a woman with a great deal of courage.

She was highly intelligent and very beautiful.

Of course, she did not have an exceptional singing voice.

She had Polish origins on her mother's side

and Spanish origins on her father's side.

And she found things very difficult in the Soviet world.

Perhaps that's what started the disagreements

in their relationship.

And when those disagreements became more pronounced,

Prokofiev left his family.

No one expected Sergei Sergeyevich to do that,

as he had always been extremely upright and honest.

Prokofiev's family took his leaving very badly, indeed.

They never accepted it.

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[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: External circumstances

very probably played a role,

Prokofiev was not really at ease in the Soviet Union.

He knew he could compose anything he wanted there,

but he did not totally grasp the way of life.

The student he fell in love with,

Mira Mendelson, was a young, typically Soviet girl.

Because of that fact,

she probably acted as Prokofiev's guide

in the shadowy meanders of the Soviet conscience,

which were totally foreign to him.

And his three most famous sonatas for piano,

the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth, were composed in Kislovodsk

at the dawn of their relationship.

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Narrator: In 1941, when Stalin informed Sergei Eisenstein

that he wanted him to make a film

about Ivan the Terrible, Eisenstein

immediately consulted his major artistic ally, Prokofiev.

The two men started by outlining the music of the film,

which was to play a major role

in the climate of paranoiac fear.

Eisenstein only started to write the screenplay

once this first stage of work had been completed.

Initially, Prokofiev refused to write the music,

not for political reasons --

he trusted Eisenstein implicitly --

but on health grounds.

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Composing required him to exert such mental effort

that several times he suffered nosebleeds while writing.

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[ Speaking Russian ]

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[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: The underlying and uncontrollable discourse

of the images and the music,

in particular in the wild debauchery scene

with Ivan's Praetorian Guard,

the Oprichnina sparked a predictable reaction in Stalin.

If he himself was Ivan the Terrible,

and if Ivan the Terrible was demented, then so was he.

It is nothing more than the barbaric debauchery

of a horde of Ku Klux Klan members and of cannibals,

a pack of Babylonians and Phoenicians

rather than the progressive army of Oprichniki.

He used the term Babylonians.

The film had to be banned.

End of story.

Eisenstein never wrote anything else.

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Vlassova: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: During the first 25 years of his life

as a composer until around the middle of the 1930s,

he wrote, I think, 59 works.

And during the 18 years

he spent in the Soviet Union, after his return,

he composed over 75 works.

It's easy to do the sums.

What counted for him was that he was not prevented

from working.

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Narrator: Prokofiev was awarded the Stalin Prize

more times than any other composer.

It was the highest award given to artists

and was attributed by Stalin himself.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Stalin was knowledgeable about music.

At the opening of each season,

he would give the same instructions

as to how the opera "Ivan Susanin" should be done.

He attended theater performances very often.

I often saw him in the director's box.

He would sit there listening to the music,

visibly appreciative of it.

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Narrator: After the war, "Romeo and Juliet"

entered the permanent repertoire of the Bolshoi Theatre

once and for all.

And the state's largest film studios, Mosfilm,

shot a large-scale film production

of Prokofiev's ballet.

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[ Church bell tolling ]

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[ Cheers and applause ]

Interpreter: In 1947, the Bolshoi staged the opera

by Muradeli "The Great Friendship."

It was not a bad work,

but it was not outstanding either.

And when Stalin came to see the opera

at the Bolshoi, he was very scathing about it.

Following his reaction, the Central Committee

issued a decree criticizing Soviet composers

who were passionate about formalism.

And alongside the mediocre composers,

like Muradeli and others,

were the names of geniuses like Prokofiev,

Shostakovich, and Myaskovsky.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: The composers whom the degree qualified

as formalists

had no idea what the formalist trend was.

The whole business was, in fact,

nothing more than a settling of old scores

on the part of the party bureaucracy

against the most eminent and talented personalities.

Janov trotted out a series of senseless remarks.

As he was the only member of the Politburo

who could play the piano, he was entrusted with the task

of pronouncing the rules on music.

Prokofiev behaved very provocatively

during the assembly of 1948.

He overtly mocked what Janov said,

freely expressing to his neighbors

what he thought of the matter.

And when one of the Central Committee's secretaries

made a remark to him, he replied,

"I do not speak to people

to whom I have not been introduced."

Janov complained to Stalin,

and Stalin's reaction was very clear --

"What impertinence.

We'll teach him a thing or two."

And they started to teach Prokofiev a lesson.

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Instructions were published concerning forbidden works.

Prokofiev himself received an official notification

from the authorities stipulating the list of his works

that could no longer be performed.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Up until 1948,

he had been the most widely published composer

in the country.

Everything that Sergei Sergeyevich wrote

was immediately published by Musgis,

or at least by Mosfond.

But his glory days came to an end in 1948.

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There was a great Shakespearean metaphor in Prokofiev's life.

Just as Tybalt stabbed Mercutio,

time crept up on Prokofiev and stabbed him in the back.

Because...towards the end...

His later life was one immense tragedy.

[ Speaking Russian ]

The violence and the climax of the insufferable

losses he had to endure...

made the end of his life

unlike anything he had ever experienced before.

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Narrator: Sergei Eisenstein, Prokofiev's main aesthetic ally,

died on the day the Central Committee

announced their resolution on formalism.

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He was found dead sitting next to his radio,

which was still on.

In his memoirs, one author recounts

having met Prokofiev as he left Eisenstein's apartment

for the last time.

He was pale and in a panic.

"It was the only time," he wrote,

"that I had ever seen Prokofiev look so terrified."

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Man: From the composer Prokofiev

to the Assembly of Moscow composers and musicologists,

the Party's Central Committee decree has made a distinction

in composers' works between corrupt flesh and healthy flesh.

As far as I'm concerned,

elements of formalism were peculiar to my music

already 15 or 20 years ago.

Apparently, the infection was caught from contact

with some Western ideas, and as a result of my blindness

as to what our people really need.

I am also guilty of atonality

often intricately linked to formalism,

which is particularly evident when one considers the deadlock

in which Schoenberg and his followers

have found themselves.

In the future,

I hope to get rid of this mannerism.

Simonov: [ Speaking Russian ]

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Vichnevetsky: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: By arresting Lina Ivanovna,

they inflicted a different type of lesson on him

and they touched his most sensitive point.

Prokofiev knew Lina was particularly vulnerable

because in the beginning of that very same year,

he had remarried without having been able to divorce her.

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Prokofiev could no longer change anything in his relationship

with Lina Ivanovna, but until the end of his days,

he knew he was entirely responsible

for what happened to the mother of his children.

It was a heavy burden of guilt for him to bear.

♪♪

Narrator: In 1948, Lina Ivanovna Prokofieva

was arrested for spying, sentenced and sent to a Gulag

in the northernmost camp of the Arctic Circle.

She would never see her husband again.

When she was freed and granted amnesty eight years later,

Prokofiev had already passed away.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Throughout his life,

Prokofiev suffered from violent migraines.

He had had terrible headaches since birth.

He had a problem with blood circulation in his head,

and this caused him to have two strokes.

When he had his first stroke in 1945,

it was perhaps thanks to the practice of Christian science

that he managed to pull himself back from the brink.

For everything concerning his faith,

he thought in English.

He kept his books on Christian science all his life,

and they have been preserved.

He read them carefully, making notes in them.

And what is referred to as "Prokofiev's Creed"

was found after his death.

Prokofiev: "Whereas I am the expression of soul,

I feel the necessity to express beauty.

I am spiritual, consequently vigorous.

Infinite life is the source of my vitality.

At every moment, I am alert to express beautiful thoughts.

I rejoice in spite of tribulations.

I am the opportunity to move the realities of life.

There is no mortal mind

to express my unharmonious beliefs of material body.

I am the thinking of a mortal mind in evidence.

Interpreter: When his faith supported him,

it was a good thing.

But whatever ideas he might have had,

the world around him was very real.

And the year 1948 proved to him

that this world was well and truly real.

He could deny that fact as much as he wanted,

but as for saying it was a disease of the mortal mind,

everything that was happening around him was dreadful,

real and tangible.

Perhaps that shook his faith. I don't know.

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[ Screams ]

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[ Screams ]

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[ Applause ]

Narrator: In 1949, the conductor Nikolai Golovanov

invited Prokofiev to the rehearsal of his new ballet,

"La Fleur de Pierre."

When he arrived in the rehearsal hall,

the Bolshoi Orchestra expressed their support

by welcoming him with a standing ovation.

This was too strong an emotion for Prokofiev,

and he suffered another stroke.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: On the one hand,

his health had been fragile since the war.

He had had to endure evacuation.

And there was also the terribly painful separation

from his family.

And then, on the other hand,

there was Lina's terrible arrest.

It was just awful.

And that would have thrown even the most audacious night --

and Prokofiev certainly was one of those -- right off course.

And he let go of his artistic life.

He lost his footing.

For the first time,

he stopped being totally free.

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Narrator: Sergei Prokofiev died

on the 5th of March 1953, on the same day

as Josef Stalin's death was announced.

♪♪

Prokofiev: I couldn't sleep,

I started thinking that it must be rather unpleasant,

once you're dead, to be closed up in a coffin

and sent underground.

Having said that, it is also rather unfortunate

to be cremated and reduced to ashes in a pot.

I have made up my mind to donate my skeleton

to the museum to be kept in a glass case,

and with the inscription at my feet,

"My friends, I'm happy you are here."

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