Keeping’ It Classy: Composition #30/50: Dance of the Knights by Sergei Prokofiev

Most weekday mornings I pour myself a hot cup of tea, fire up my laptop and begin to write the words that you read each day. I do so with a clear mind and a brave heart. I try my best to tell you stories that are interesting and true. I answer to no one (except my wife, of course) and my copy editor (who shakes her head daily at how feeble my grasp of proper punctuation and the rules of grammar actually seem to be). Not once since I have started writing on this blog has anything I have said caused there to be a knock upon my door by strong men with billy clubs in their hands. In that regard I am extremely lucky. Not every writer or artist in the world has the freedom to express themselves as I do each and every day. For some, what they create can sometimes be a matter of life and death. In a perfect world, freedom of expression should be an inalienable right for all of us. But all throughout history there are examples of people who have spoken their truth to power or simply undertaken an act of creativity and have found themselves persecuted by the authorities as a result. Today’s story is but one example.

Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich

In the past century there have been three composers who are generally regarded as being the giants of the classical music scene in Russia. Those three composers are Igor Stravinsky, Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. All three men enjoyed periods of fame and respect throughout their careers. They all produced ballets and symphonies that were praised for their originality, creativity and flawless musical construction. But all three composers also plied their trade during one of the most dangerous periods in Russian history, which was the reign of Stalin as the undisputed head of the Russian Government. Josef Stalin’s reign was known for many things, but chief among them was the constant purging from the ranks of government or society of anyone viewed as potentially posing a threat to Stalin’s hold on power. Stalin demanded absolute obedience from everyone in Russia. For those who displeased him in any way, their lives would never be the same again.

In the decade or so after the Russian Revolution had come to pass, composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev enjoyed great artistic freedom. Their symphonies were played in concert halls all across Russia and the world. Their ballets were danced by the best dancers that the Bolshoi Ballet Company had in their employ. Government officials heaped praise upon them. They all received medals of distinction and were granted positions of authority on cultural boards throughout the country. Those were heady days for Russian classical music and the Arts. But things changed as Stalin assumed control of the government and began his systematic purging of the ranks. A chill swept through the land. Suddenly, people began to change their behaviour so as to avoid offending Stalin. Government policies were changed to protect his position and to promote his views. Governing boards and committees were purged of anyone who didn’t follow Stalin’s decrees to the letter. It was not uncommon for those who fell out of favour to simply disappear to a prison gulag or to end up shot. Of course, there were those in Russian society who failed to heed the warning signs because they felt that what was happening to others could never happen to them, thinking they possessed some sort of immunity based upon past accomplishments. One who felt that way was composer Dimitri Shostakovich. His story has a lot to do with how today’s featured composition, “The Dance of the Knights” by compatriot Sergei Prokofiev, came to be.

Josef Stalin (in centre of photo) having a night at the opera.

Like Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich had enjoyed a long run of success in the Russian Arts community. From his earliest days as a young boy, Shostakovich had shown a proclivity toward music and, more specifically, toward creating compositions that used music in new and original ways. Russian audiences waited with bated breath for each new ballet because they were guaranteed to see something new and innovative with every performance. However, politics was soon to become a factor in ways that Shostakovich could barely even begin to imagine. There came a time in the 1930s when Josef Stalin decided to personally attend performances of all current ballets, symphonies and plays. By this time, his reputation for cruelty was well known, and a shudder went through the entire Russian Arts community. Some composers and theatre directors automatically altered their performances in an attempt to please Stalin and survive his visit. Dimitri Shostakovich was not of that mind. He performed his latest ballet as created. The ballet was filled with light and colour and glorious music that was used in brilliant and imaginative ways. The ballet was so unique in the history of Russian ballets that Stalin did not fully understand it and grew frustrated as the performance went on. He ended up leaving before the third act was finished. Dimitri Shostakovich, who was very proud of his work, watched Stalin exit the theatre. According to eyewitnesses, he turned completely pale. His work had displeased Stalin. The repercussions for Shostakovich were immediate. A few days later he was publicly critiqued in the national newspaper, Pravda. The headline simply and devastatingly read: “Muddle Instead of Music!” Shostakovich fell into public disgrace at once. He was stripped of all committee appointments. He lost all commissions. No theatre or music hall would perform his work anywhere in the country. All other composers and other members of the Russian Arts community separated themselves from him. To further make his message clear that all Russian Art must adhere to strict nationalist policies, Stalin refused to imprison or execute Shostakovich. Instead, he publicly centred him out and demanded that he reform his ways and submit to Stalin’s authority by creating approved works in the future. For someone like Dimitri Shostakovich, having his creative freedom curtailed was akin to a death sentence. For a while, he kept a low profile and attempted to write some symphonies on the sly. But word got out that he was writing again, and Stalin demanded to hear this new work. By the time he was summoned, Shostakovich was a beaten man. He knew he could not tempt fate twice. So, before meeting with Stalin, Dimitri Shostakovich altered his new symphony. He streamlined it and simplified it in ways that he felt Stalin would be able to understand. He engaged in self-censorship as an act of self-preservation, and as a result, Dimitri Shostakovich lived to see another day. In fact, as history has a way of demonstrating its fluid nature, in time Shostakovich’s image was formally rehabilitated by the same government that had attacked him so unmercifully. But, when he was first attacked for his work, other composers took notice. One who managed to marry pragmatism with Art was Sergei Prokofiev. This is his story.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev

In the early days after the Revolution, Sergei Prokofiev was like many in the Arts community. He felt empowered to unleash his creative vision onto the world. In searching for a grand project upon which to build an entirely new ballet, he discovered that there had never been a full rendering of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet before. Even though this was an English play, Prokofiev was confident that Russian audiences would have been aware of it and would be receptive to seeing it performed in Russian on their own stages across the land. So he set about creating a faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s story of doomed lovers…well, except for one thing…in his ballet, the lovers were not doomed. Sergei Prokofiev took it upon himself to change the ending and make it a happy one instead. In fact, he even added an additional scene at the end that included a celebratory May Day parade. He created an entirely original score for the ballet, which included one composition entitled “The Dance of the Knights, Op. 64”. It was to be played the first time the Montagues and Capulets run into each other in the marketplace prior to the costume ball later that evening, where Juliet and Romeo would see each other for the first time. “The Dance of the Knights” is bold and brassy and conveys a sense of foreboding, as one might expect when two rival groups come into view in the same space. As time has gone on, “The Dance of the Knights, Op. 64” has become the most well known and well-liked composition of Prokofiev’s career. But, back in the time when he was first putting his ballet together, Dimitri Shostakovich’s public shaming was unfolding in real time. Suddenly the Arts community all across Russia was hurriedly re-examining everything it was promoting and performing. It was certainly not a time to be taking audacious artistic gambles. So, those around Sergei Prokofiev implored him to revise his version of Romeo and Juliet so that it fell into line with Stalin’s rigid vision. Being a creator, Prokofiev balked. But quickly enough, he was informed that the Bolshoi Ballet were refusing to perform it out of fear for what the reaction would be. Prokofiev believed in his artistic vision, but he was also a practical enough man to see what was happening to Shostakovich and realized that it would probably end up happening to him, too. So, Sergei Prokofiev censored himself and revised his ballet. In fact, just to add some insurance so that he could be sure of Stalin’s reaction, he debuted his new ballet in the Czech theatre in Brno. Once it was met with approval there, the newly revised ballet was performed in Russia.

While Dimitri Shostakovich was put through the process of public shaming and rehabilitation, Sergei Prokofiev emerged relatively intact through it all. He learned to temper his artistic enthusiasms and tailor his work to suit the formal policies of the government. Consequently, Sergei Prokofiev remained gainfully employed for the majority of his career as a composer. As someone who can afford the luxury of idealism, I would hope that everyone would understand and appreciate the importance of freedom of expression in a functioning society. But, as history has repeatedly shown, it is the artists and the creative thinkers who are almost always the first to fall under the hammer blows of repressive regimes all over the world. One of the hallmarks of Art is that it is not just a product to be viewed in a gallery or listened to from a stage. Art is a way of thinking about life. It is about using your imagination to see the world in new and different ways. It is about being able to reason without fear. So when you listen to “The Dance of the Knights”, with its tremendous, forceful sense of foreboding woven into the fabric of the score, know that Prokofiev wasn’t just talking about a scene from a Shakespearean play. This composition endures for a reason. That reason is because he was really talking about life and Art. He was talking about us. All of us. Freedom of expression is a gift to be cherished.

The link to the video for the composition “Dance of the Knights, Op. 64” from Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev can be found here.

The link to an official website for Sergei Prokofiev can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

2 thoughts on “Keeping’ It Classy: Composition #30/50: Dance of the Knights by Sergei Prokofiev”

  1. I am woefully unschooled in classical music. I really appreciate learning the history behind the names I recognize, being able to see the story behind the music.

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