Sergei and the Wolf – Frank McNally on the tragic timing of Sergei Prokofiev

An Irishman’s Diary

By an unfortunate coincidence, the composer Sergei Prokofiev died on the same day – March 5th, 1953 – as a man named Josef Stalin. Adding to the misfortune, he had been living near Red Square at the time, which greatly complicated funeral arrangements.

Amid the mass outpouring of grief – real and manufactured – for the dictator, it was not possible to hold the composer’s memorial service at the headquarters of the Soviet Composers’ Union, as would otherwise have happened.

The hearse couldn’t get close to his home either, so the coffin had to be carried by hand through side streets, in the opposite direction to the vast crowds descending to mourn Stalin. There were no flowers for Prokofiev. With every flower shop in Moscow requisitioned for the main event, he had to make do with potted plants from neighbours.

Since his death was not officially announced for days after Stalin’s, it was in every way a modest funeral. Only about 30 attended. Similarly understated was a mention of Prokofiev’s demise on page 116 of the main Soviet music journal. The first 115 pages had been devoted to you know who.


The composer’s estranged wife Lina only heard about his death indirectly. That was because she was in the gulag at the time, suspected of planning to defect.

One sign her husband had died was when the camp started broadcasting his music. She also heard the news in a letter from her son, although when he wrote “What a terrible coincidence that Papa ...”, the rest of that sentence (“... died on then very same day as Stalin”) was blacked out by the censor.

She and Prokofiev had made a Faustian pact when moving to Moscow in 1936 after years abroad, lured by his homesickness and promises of artistic freedom.

At least after Stalin's death, Lina was on the road to political rehabilitation. She was later released from prison under the "Kruschev thaw". So was another friend of the composer Natalia Sats, a Russian stage director who specialised in children's theatre.

Sats is now best remembered for having commissioned Prokofiev’s best-loved work, Peter and the Wolf, on which they collaborated closely.

The famous symphony for children was his first project on returning to Russia, and after a quiet debut, went on to make history all over the world. But by the time of its first American performance, in 1938, Sats too was in the prison camps.


It seems to have been another coincidence – unfortunate for different reasons – that the latest anniversary of Prokofiev’s death, last Saturday, was the occasion for a new live version of a 1980s hit by rock star Sting.

The song was "Russians", first recorded in 1985, during the Cold War. As explained on Instagram, Sting had not performed it much since, "because I never thought it would be relevant again". He was reluctantly reviving it now only because of events in Ukraine.

But whether he was conscious of Saturday’s date or not, it was apt timing. “Russians” borrows the music from another Prokofiev work, the satirical Lieutenant Kijé (1934), written as a Soviet film soundtrack at a time when the composer was still pining for a return to his homeland.

Lieutenant Kijé had a suitably revolutionary theme. Set in Tsarist times, it lampoons “the stupidity of royalty and the particularly Russian terror of displeasing one’s superior”. Alas for Prokofiev, and for others since, that seems to be an endlessly recurring theme.


For its latest performance in Ireland, Peter and the Wolf will become Peadar agus an Mac Tire. That's because the wolf is taking on Irish clothing for Seachtain na Gaeilge and is to be broadcast on Lyric FM this coming weekend in a new translation.

Anglicised in such surnames as McAteer, the Irish for wolf means “son of the country”, hinting at the wealth of lore that survived the animal’s extinction here during the late 1700s.

Shakespeare refers to "the howling of Irish wolves". Poet-colonist Edmund Spenser thought the human natives of Ireland turned wolf once a year. And a Cromwellian captain went even further, reporting the possession of tails by some of the garrison slaughtered at Clonmel in 1647.

Other Irish names for wolf are bréagh (hence Breaffy, Co Mayo), and Faolchú (as in Feltrim, north Dublin). On the subject of Breaffy, there is resort hotel there, formally a big house and estate, in which I'm told one of the gamekeepers used to be a Wolf, Billy Wolf.

Getting back to Prokofiev as Gaeilge, Peadar agus an MacTire will also feature "an t-éan", "an lacha", and "an cat". It goes out as Lyric FM's Sunday Matinee on March 13th, with music from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and narration by Aedín Gormley.