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

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice