Prokofiev made several public announcements at this period about his new piece, even though almost nothing had yet been written. Perhaps this was a gamble to ensure that his return to his native land would be a resounding success. If so, it was a gamble that failed.
According to Rita McAllister, the composer began sketching the cantata while he was in Paris. As he often did, he included several ideas which had been written years before. The text, which he himself appears to have compiled by degrees, seems at this stage to have involved only words from Lenin, although it eventually came to include quotations from Marx, Engels and even Stalin. Back once again in Moscow in March (his wife was still looking after the children in Paris), Prokofiev moved into the Metropol Hotel, where, within a few weeks, he wrote Peter and the Wolf for the Moscow Children’s Musical Theatre. This enchanting piece became a huge success within days of its first performance on 2 May. On 15 May his wife and children arrived, and by the end of June the whole family had moved into a new flat on the east side of the centre of town.
By the beginning of July the hot weather had begun and Prokofiev and his wife and children left the dusty city to spend the summer in the countryside. In fact he did little work on the cantata at this point as he was preoccupied with three Pushkin projects, a film score for The Queen of Spades and incidental music for theatrical productions of Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin (1937 was to be not only the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, but the centenary of Pushkin’s death). Towards the end of the summer, the family came back to Moscow, arriving home at the same time as the news of the start of the great show trials of Zinoviev and Kamenev, marking the opening of the floodgates of the Stalinist Terror. How this ghastly historical episode touched Prokofiev we do not know, but even he cannot have remained indifferent to the general atmosphere of mounting fear, and to the increasing number of arbitrary arrests.
In November, Prokofiev set off on a tour of Europe and the USA. That he was able to go at all, at a time when most Soviet citizens had no chance of travelling abroad, is a remarkable indicator of the deal that he thought he had struck with the authorities when he decided to go home. For the time being, those authorities were sticking to what they had promised. His well-publicised departure also coincided with the Eighth Extraordinary Congress of Soviets, at which Stalin forced through the ratification of his new Constitution. Extracts from Stalin’s speech at this Congress would eventually form the text of the final section of Prokofiev’s Cantata.
In the early months of 1937 Prokofiev returned to Moscow (with a smart new blue Ford purchased in America) and it was possibly at this time that he began to get down to serious work on the music.
By the time summer came he had again removed his family from the city, this year to a pretty little village beyond the suburbs to the south-west, Nikolina Gora. Here, in the place where he was eventually to spend most of his time in his later years, Prokofiev completed the composition and orchestration of the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, finishing the enormous full score on 16 August 1937.
Soon afterwards, he gave a performance of the piece (playing the score on the piano and singing the vocal parts himself) to a closed session of the Committee for Artistic Affairs, chaired by its president, the ideologist and propagandist Platon Mikhailovich Kerzhentsev. In a transcript of this occasion which appeared only in 1967, Moisey Grinberg, who was present, recalled:
‘I remember how Platon Mikhailovich said: “What on earth do you mean, Sergey Sergeyevich, by taking such texts, which have become the people’s, and setting them to such music?”’