Politically Correct Thinking has now been turned on the core of the classical music repertory. Under the headline “Prokofiev, Hail.. . and Farewell?” an April article in the Sunday New York Times by Richard Taruskin, a professor of music at the University of California at Berkeley, applied this new standard of judgment to the work of the great Russian composer, one of the musical giants of our century. Professor Taruskin, writing from the fear-ridden and casualty-strewn battlefield of northern California, finds that despite their manifest musical virtues, Sergei Prokofiev’s most beloved compositions, beginning with the film music for the Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky (1938) and ending with the Seventh Symphony (1951-52), may well deserve to disappear from the repertory. This is so because, as in the case of Nevsky, they “speak of a time now best consigned, so far as the performing repertory is concerned, to the dustbin of history.”
If Professor Taruskin does not really find the fatal flaw of this music in the works themselves—he calls Prokofiev “an epic talent” —just where does he find it? Prokofiev’s fault lies in his return to the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s from exile abroad, and in his going along with Stalin by continuing to write his music, sometimes for a pet Stalin project like the primitively nationalistic Alexander Nevsky, and sometimes, as in the prevailingly songful Cello Sonata (1949) and the serenely lyrical Seventh Symphony, as if the horrors of Stalin did not exist.
For Professor Taruskin, “What a piece of music says is not always or only what its composer meant to say.” As a result, he judges the music of the Cello Sonata and the Seventh Symphony to be “saccharine stuff, and the most unlistenable of all to any who know what bloody hands enforced the pretty platitudes.” Professor Taruskin, even going beyond blaming Prokofiev for complicity with Stalin, accuses him of cynicism and nihilism in his pre-Soviet modernist phrase; in a demonstration of the quality of mercy our intellectual pietists regularly dispense to the objects of their wrath, Professor Taruskin remarks: “It may not be entirely the unlucky composer’s fault that he backed so many wrong horses, but he bears their indelible curse.”
Veterans of the thought of Comrade Stalin will recognize this reasoning as directly drawn from the notion of objective guilt—the idea that nothing counts but the use made by others, and especially by history, of one’s work. According to this test, the only applicable test in art and in life is whether human actions further or hinder the cause of progressive mankind, as defined retrospectively by a self-chosen elite. When applied to Prokofiev, this brutal and false test convicts the composer not just of having written beautiful music but of having survived in order to be able to do so.
The heart weeps at the callousness of this attitude. Were the Russian people, at the mercy of the bestial Stalin, to have naught for their comfort? Is Prokofiev’s choosing to live, and even to write music, to be seen as culpable? Are our academic priests, now wearing the once clean robes of musicology, to demand personal heroism—as defined by themselves—as a price for musical regard?
To accept the later compositions of Prokofiev for the beauty they contain is hardly to condone Stalin’s crimes. To condemn Stalin does not require the purging of culture; it requires facing the political consequences of political actions. To punish Prokofiev—and the music-loving audience—for having provided us with marvelously made and moving music is to give the Soviet dictator and murderer the last laugh, and a dirty one at that.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 10, on page 2
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