‘It must be pointed out that Prokofiev sang very nastily, although he played the piano brilliantly ...’
Against this story must be set a diary entry by the composer Nikolay Myaskovsky (one of Prokofiev’s closest friends), who heard the piece at the same time:
‘Prokofiev showed us his cantata for the 20th anniversary of October – tremendous.’
Nonetheless, and despite Myaskovsky’s favourable opinion, the result of this secret session was that the new cantata was declared unworthy of performance.
For a while Prokofiev seems to have clung to the idea that the decision was not final. He wrote to a friend:
‘I sat for two months at Nikolina Gora ... scribbling a cantata for the twentieth anniversary, and it has already provoked more indignation than rapture. What will happen when it is performed?’
Even months later on 31 December 1937, he defiantly told a journalist from Pravda that:
‘My main work this year has been a large cantata dedicated to the 20th anniversary of October. The main themes of this composition are the Great October Socialist Revolution, its victory, the industrialisation of the country and the Constitution.’
The cantata is written for two choruses (professional and amateur) and four orchestras (symphony, brass band, sound effects and accordionists).
‘I wrote this cantata with great enthusiasm. The complex events which it treats demanded an equal complexity of musical language. But I hope that the impetuosity and sincerity of the music will carry it to our listeners.’
These last words are particularly interesting as they give the first hint that Prokofiev is trying to defend himself publicly against the attacks of Kerzhentsev and his cronies.
In fact, the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Only on 5 April 1966, more than 12 years after his death, did it receive its premiere in Moscow under the conductor Kiril Kondrashin. Even then the eighth and tenth movements were cut because of their texts by Stalin, the ninth movement (‘Symphony’) was given only in fragments, and the performance ended with a peculiar reprise of the second movement, presumably in order to find some way of finishing the piece in C major. Only in very recent years has it had its first complete performances.
The Cantata, for all its immense size, the massive forces it demands, its cumbersome title and its repulsive texts, represents one of Prokofiev’s most magnificent musical utterances on the large scale, a choral and orchestral feast to rank with his world-famous film scores for Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible.
The work is cast in ten movements, which follow one another without a break. It begins with a stormy prelude, over the first page of which Prokofiev has written a quotation from The Communist Manifesto: