Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Prokofiev the Christian Scientist

I was surpirsed to learn today that Serge Prokofiev became a Christian Scientist after meeting Stella Adler, an American actress who introduced him to the teachings of this sect. His new found faith influenced his work greatly.

"If we assume that the diary is unexpurgated, the account of his mother's death on December 13, 1924 consists of a single comment under the heading for December 12 (II: 294). There are no entries for the following two weeks. Thereafter, the intimate details that catch the eye most often concern religion. Prokofiev turns out to have been a surprisingly religious individual. The surprise lies in the choice of his faith: Prokofiev was neither an adherent of Orthodoxy nor Catholicism nor even Protestantism, but of Christian Science.
Encouraged by Lina, Prokofiev became acquainted with Christian Science in the summer of 1924, after finishing the original version of The Fiery Angel, a supernatural, mock-Symbolist opera that he would later deem heretical to his new faith. His indoctrination first involved reading Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875); through it, he and Lina began to treat their ailments - migraines, fatigue, eyestrain - through meditation (II: 267, 292-93, 394). The couple subscribed to the principle that sickness was an illusion that stemmed from a loss of harmony with the godhead. Prokofiev admitted, however, that their attempts at self-healing bore mixed results. Further study informed him that Christian Science and Kantian metaphysics had points in common, since "both interpret the world around us as merely a representation" (II: 275). Entries from early 1926 find him contemplating the difference between self-love and love for others. He also affirms the inevitable triumph of good, an "infinite" force, over evil, a "finite" one:

Christian Science regards evil as unreal, for evil is a temporal entity; in eternity, where time does not exist, all that is temporal is unreal. The world instant is unrelated to eternity. Till when will evil last? Until individualities are strengthened to the extent that their mutual attractions no longer lead to fusion and annulment. Hence: a person's acceptance of good and rejection of evil is symptomatic of the maturation of his individuality (II: 377).

Later in the diary, Prokofiev incorporates direct quotations from Science and Health into his prose, and resolves to attend Christian Science services - even though the music performed at them grated on his nerves - and to live in accord with their teachings (II: 450, 577, 782-83). His faith explains the stress on moral absolutes in his text-based works, and his preference for characters who believe in spiritual and non-spiritual causes over those who doubt.
Thus, in 1927, Prokofiev dismissed his adolescent fascination with the cabalistic, a fascination manifest in his cantata Seven, They are Seven (1917), whose libretto concerns the spirits that afflict mankind, and in the aforementioned Fiery Angel, an opera that he did not see staged, and that represented the greatest disappointment of his career.[12] In the midst of a 1926 overhaul of the ostinato-driven score, one that absorbed changes proposed by the philologist Boris Demchinsky, Prokofiev confessed: "With Christian Science I have become entirely detached from this storyline, and hysteria and devilry no longer attract me" (II: 425). Two months afterward, he reached a creative impasse, musing that he either had to abandon religion or abandon the opera that subverted it: "Conclusion? Toss The Fiery Angel into the stove" (II: 439). Mercifully, Lina advised him against rash decisions. Staking hopes for a production on Bruno Walter, the director of the Berlin St├Ądtische Oper, he turned warily back to the now sacrilegious score, but the "nightmarish" (II: 581) process of reshaping the scenario, translating the text, and orchestrating the music extended past the contractual deadline. Walter, under pressure to reduce the foreign content of his repertoire, used the delay as an excuse to cancel the staging, and then accused Prokofiev of failing to support him in his battle against dilettante nationalism. Upon hearing about the cancellation from his agent, Prokofiev "became distressed, even bitter, but Christian Science soon calmed me down and dispelled my ire" (II: 596)."

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