Picking up the pieces: Following Prokofiev's death in 1953, the original manuscript for his opera of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin disappeared. When it resurfaced, 20 years later, four pages (three of 44 musical numbers) were missing

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Their whereabouts remained a mystery until Sir Edward Downes spotted a small ad in the Times Literary Supplement; now he is to conduct the world premiere performance of the complete score in London. Mark Pappenheim reports

Ask any opera buff who wrote the music for Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades and Boris Godunov, and they're bound to reply 'Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky again, and Mussorgsky.' But persist with your enquiry - 'Yes, but who else? Who composed all three at the same time?' - and even the most Russophile fan will probably be stumped. Supplying the correct answer - Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev - only prompts the question: 'Why?'

For, as Prokofiev himself admitted in a letter written shortly after his return to Russia in the spring of 1936, his current list of works-in-progress - consisting entirely of titles already made famous by his 19th-century predecessors - must have read like the 'ravings of a madman'.

Yet there was method in his madness. 1937 was both the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution and the centenary of the death of Pushkin, and recomposing the major dramatic works of Russia's national poet must have struck Prokofiev as an eminently sensible way of marking his return to the Motherland after 18 years' self-imposed exile in the West.

He could hardly have chosen a worse moment for his homecoming. That January Pravda had produced its anti-Shostakovich editorial, 'Chaos instead of Music', attacking his younger colleague's opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and signalling the first stage in the Stalinist clampdown on 'formalistic' music that was to culminate in an almost total ban on the works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian.

How Prokofiev's Pushkin plans could possibly have offended against the prevailing political orthodoxy remains unclear. Yet, for whatever reason, all three productions were abandoned before reaching rehearsal. But not before Prokofiev had produced his preliminary sketches and, in the case of Eugene Onegin, composed all 44 musical numbers in manuscript short score, complete with instructions to the copyist for its final orchestration.

After the projects' collapse, Prokofiev's Pushkin music began, in his own words, 'gradually to resolve itself into other pieces', and many of the principal themes from Onegin were soon to become familiar through their re-use in the finished scores for Cinderella, War and Peace and the final symphony and piano sonata.

As for the original manuscript, following Prokofiev's death on 5 March 1953 it disappeared, along with most of the composer's other papers, into the archives of the Glinka Museum. And there it lay forgotten for the next 20 years, until it was eventually rediscovered by the Soviet authorities, edited, orchestrated, published, and even recorded. Yet, despite this triumphant, if delayed, rehabilitation of Prokofiev's 'lost' Onegin score, the Soviet version was incomplete: four manuscript pages, totalling three out of 44 musical numbers, had mysteriously gone missing.

At much the same time as the Soviet edition first began to reach the West, Sir Charles Johnston published, at his own expense, a new English version of Pushkin's original verse-novel that instantly won classic status, not only for its graceful rendition of the text's literal meaning but, even more, for its brilliant recapturing of the uniquely sly, cynical narrative tone that had hitherto eluded all comers.

Putting two and two together, the BBC then decided to broadcast a dramatised reading of the new Johnston translation accompanied by the newly rediscovered Prokofiev score, and invited the conductor Ted Downes (now Sir Edward) to take charge of the music.

Given his impeccable Russian credentials, Downes was the obvious choice. Besides having conducted the British premiere of Katerina Ismailova, Shostakovich's politically corrected version of the once-banned Lady Macbeth, at Covent Garden in 1963, he had become particularly associated with the music of Prokofiev: he opened the new Sydney Opera House with War and Peace in 1972, orchestrated the composer's first mature opera, Maddalena, for the BBC in 1979 and, only two years ago, brought the long-awaited British premiere of the 1920s symbolist-satanist opera The Fiery Angel to Covent Garden (where he is now associate music director).

But what the BBC can't have counted on was Downes's luck. For what had promised to be a British broadcast premiere of the incomplete Soviet edition of the Prokofiev score was suddenly transformed into a world premiere broadcast of the complete thing when Sir Edward's eye was momentarily caught one morning by a back-page display ad in his TLS.

'I was just taking my wife up an early- morning cup of tea,' he recalls, 'when I noticed this advertisement for an auction sale at Christie's of letters and manuscripts belonging to Prokofiev. Now, as it happens, I knew Mme Prokofiev, the composer's widow, I knew her very well - in fact, she died in my wife's arms - and I knew she would never sell any of her husband's things. So I called her up in Paris and she got a lawyer to put a stop to the sale. She then came over to London and she and my wife were put in a locked room by Christie's and made to go through every item, verifying her claim to each one.'

Mostly, they were just personal letters, but, in among the letters, were a few manuscripts. And, before locking them all away in a London bank vault, Mme Prokofiev had photocopies made of the music for Downes to take home and study. 'And as soon as I got them home, I realised these were the three missing numbers from Eugene Onegin.' It's all prime Prokofiev, dating, like the rest of the score, from the period in between the Romeo and Juliet ballet and Peter and the Wolf. But, unlike the rest of the score, it's all 'new' music, containing no pre-echoes of any of the composer's later works. 'So I orchestrated the music over the weekend, following Prokofiev's instructions, just as I had with his earlier opera Maddalena, and was able to give the first complete performance of the score for the BBC.'

That was in 1979. Since then, the BBC has repeated its recording a couple of times, but the score has yet to reach the stage. According to Downes, the National was interested in it, so were the RSC, but the practical problems have always got in the way. For, as he explains, 'This isn't written for your usual theatre band of 15, like Carmen Jones. This is for full symphony orchestra' - plus narrator, actors, chorus and vocal soloists. And Prokofiev exploits his forces for the full range of available possibilities, going from straight speech and song to fully integrated 'melodrama', or speech over music.

Now, where the National and RSC feared to tread, plucky little Docklands Sinfonietta has taken up the challenge of presenting the 'world premiere public performance' of Prokofiev's lost Pushkin score. It's being directed, and narrated by Timothy West whose credentials are almost as good as Downes'. A former EMI recording engineer who admits he still 'tinkles a bit', West has not only impersonated Sir Thomas Beecham on stage, he even played Stalin in the David Pownall play Masterclass based on the showdown between the Great Teacher and his three leading composers.

Given a showdown between the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev versions of Eugene Onegin, West would clearly side with the latter, for his loyalty to Pushkin's original. 'But I see the piece as essentially a triangular relationship,' he says - 'between the music, which is mainly romantic; the story, which is extremely passionate, yet essentially realistic; and the narrative, which is basically rather cynical.' Having a sometime stage Stalin as your narrator should do the trick.

Monday 7.45pm QEH, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (071-928 8800) pounds 6- pounds 16

(Photographs omitted)