Immediately upon completing his opera Betrothal in a Convent in April 1941, Prokofiev got the idea to write an opera based on Tolstoy's War and Peace. Could it have been foresight? For two months later, the Nazis broke the ill-advised Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and launched their invasion of the USSR.
The war had already begun when Prokofiev began preparing the libretto, with the help of his second wife, Myra Mendelssohn (for whom he had left his Spanish-born first wife), and with the participation of film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.
According to Myra Mendelssohn, the composer had been thinking of writing an opera on Tolstoy's Resurrection when she started to read War and Peace to him. He was immediately struck by its operatic possibilities, the scene of the meeting between Natasha and the wounded Prince Andrei particularly appealing to him. In addition to reading Tolstoy, he undertood historical research, going as far as studying military songs and contemporary proverbial sayings. "The pages of the novel tell the story of the resistance of the Russian people against Napoleon's armies, and thus acquired a poignant topicality. And I felt sure that those pages should be the basis for the opera," he wrote in his Autobiography.
In early 1942, Prokofiev completed the version for voice and piano. His friend, the composer Nikolai Miaskovsky, assessed it as follows: "Some outstanding passages, but as usualy with him, the singers converse almost the whole time to a background of superb orchestral music." Miaskovsky was not the only one to make this criticism.
A year later, the opera was fully orchestrated. Thus, the first version was ready, composed at the same time as other works (7th piano sonata, music for the film Ivan the Terrible, "Ballad of the boy who remained unknown", and other pieces). During the orchestration, Prokofiev made some initial amendments to the score, following the advices of Eisenstein and the conductor Samuel Samosoud, who was to conduct the first performance. Then Prokofiev also wrote the choral epigraph that begins the opera. According to Kobbé's, "The granite-hard choral movement called Epigraph in the score, and often appropriately substituted at the start of the opera for the much less interesting Overture, is a massive piece of block harmony, and with its emphasis on the primordial strength of Russia in the face of her enemies makes a most effective opening." The voice and piano score was published in 1943.
In this first version, the opera is made up of eleven tableaux, the first six of them making up the "peace" part of the opera - a night at the Rostovs'; Natasha visits old Bolkonsky; an evening at Helena Bezhukova's; Anatol Kuraghin and Dolokhov; at Akhrossimova's; in Pierre Bezhukov's office - and the last five make up the "war" section - before the battle of the Moskva; at Napoleon's command post; Moscow occupied by the French; death of Andrei Bolkonsky; on the road to Smolensk. Samosoud suggested to Prokofiev that he write another tableau, the ball at which Natasha meets Andrei Bolkonsky for the first time. This became tableau no. 2, thus coming before the visit to old Bolkonsky's.
At this point, given the size of the work, it was suggested that the performance be spread over two evenings. There were initially two concert performances, one with piano accompniment in the Moscow Actors' Centre, October 1944, and the other in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, on 7 June 1945. Samosoud had recently left his post at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre to go the the Maly Theatre in Leningrad, and it was there that the first eight tableaux of War and Peace were first performed: the first part plus the eve of the battle of the Moskva. The remained was to be performed the next season.
With this in mind, Prokofiev had composed yet another tableau, a new no. 10: the council of war in the village of Fili, where Marshal Kutuzov decides to abandon Moscow and make a strategic retreat - this would have made thirteen tableaux in all. But the second performance never happend, "for reasons beyond the control of the theatre and the composer." Samosoud was to write later, in his recollections of Prokofiev, "Despite the authenticity of the events, certain people considered that the historical conception of the second part of the opera was mistaken." War and Peace had, in fact, met with the displeasure of the authorities, for reasons whose rational basis one would search for in vain. This was the beginning of the notorious "Jdanovist years" of cultural repression and the offensive against "formalism", by which was meant any work which was judged, quite arbitrarily, not to be "for the people".
Meanwhile, in 1946-48, Prokofiev reworked the score, sticking to a final plan of thirteen tableaux, with a choral epigraph and an overture, but making additions or changes here and there. It was at this stage that he wrote the beautiful duet betwen Natasha and Sonia in the first tableau. (In the remaining five years of his life, he made several more changes in detail, including Kutuzov's aria in the tenth tableau).
In autumn 1948, another attempt was launched to revive War and Peace but cutting the whole opera down to a single evening. Prokofiev himself drew up the list of sizeable cuts required. But what was left was a set of mere extracts. Even this improvised effort did not materialise.
Prokofiev would not live to see a complete performance of the opera. Eleven of the thirteen tableaux were performed at Leningrad on 1 April 1955, two years after his death. on 8 November 1957, all thirteen tableaux were performed at the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow, but with considerable custs. It was not until 15 December 1959 that the whole work was performed in one evening at the Bolshoi, with the choral epigraph, conducted by Melik Pashaiev, with Valina Vishenevskaia as Natasha.
One of the features of War and Peace, and one of the reasons why it is difficult to perform, is the unparalleled number of characters: 72. Admittedly, some are given no more than a few words to sing, and some of the roles, scattered among the various tableaux, can be sung by the same singers. The first part of the opera - the first seven tableaux - may be seen schematically as a chronicle of the lives and loves of the main characters: Russian high society in the early 19th century as a setting, human types and relationships of the kind Tchaikovsky would have loved to have handled, as sentiments are born and develop to a background of waltz music. The second part, by contrast, is a chronicle of events in which some of the same characters, borne away by the maelstrom of history, reappear, picked out against the vast mosaic. Such are the scope, the patriotism, the function of the choirs, and the nature of the themes, that with the opera Prokofiev is very close to the work of the Group of Five, whose influence may also be heard in the style of Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. Throughout War and Peace, Prokofiev is indebted to a greater or lesser degree to Mussorgsky, in the dialogue-writing, the switch from recitative to arioso, and the musical portraits of some of the characters, the most striking of which is Balaga, the coachman, in the fifth tableau.
Prokofiev often borrwed from his own music. War and Peace reuses fragments of his stage music for Eugene Onegin (1936): the introduction to the first tableau, the g-minor waltz in the fourth tableau during the exchange between Natasha and Prince Kuraghin, and Pierre Bezukhov's arioso at Akhrossimova's in the sixth tableau. Another borrowing, from the film score for Lermontov (1941) is another waltz, Helena Bezhukova's dance with Rostov in the fourth tableau. And Prokofiev drew on his music for the film Ivan the Terrible to create one of the finest melodies in War and Peace: Kutuzov's aria in the tenth tableau ("Moscow, mother of all cities"), which in the film was the chorus "Broad steppes". This vast and noble cantilena, taken up at the end of the thirteenth tableau by the chorus of the people, would alone be enough to confirm War and Peace its place among the great Russian national and popular operas.
"The combined forces of twelve European nations invaded Russia. The enemy destroyed our towns, pillaged our houses, slaughtered our children and our old folk, and pushed onwards, leaving behind thousands of versts of a devstated and hostile land. A spirit of rebellion possessed the Russian people; inflamed by holy anger, it fell upon the enemy and struck at him until the entire horde of invaders had perished. Great is our motherland, and none can count the number of her sons that people the vastness of her spaces. In days gone by, those who attacked her life paid dearly for their temerity. But never before had she risen to her full height, and then woe betide him who would seek to strike her down. Great is our Russia, our Motherland."
New Year's Eve 1810, at a ball in a palace of a leading St. Petersburg dignitary. A footman (tenor) calls out the names of the guests as they arrive, each time setting off murmurs of admiration, raillery, or backbiting from those present. Among the guests are Count Rostov (bass), who enters with Natasha and Sonya. They are followed by the Rostovs' friend, Count Pierre (tenor) and his wife, Countess Helena Bezukhov (mezzo-soprano), Helena's brother Anatol Kuraghin (tenor), his friend Lieutenant Dolokhov (baritone), and Andrei Bolkonsky. Madame Akhrossimova (contralto) comments with asperity to a friend on the beauty of the celebrated Helena Bezukhova. Tsar Alexander I (silent role) honours the occasion with his presence and dances a mazurka. Natasha, standing sadly to one side, wonders if anyone will ask her to dance. Pierre Bezukhov, noticing how disappointed she is, suggests to his friend Andrei that he ask her for the waltz. Andrei does this, and their feelings for one another become more clearly defined. Natasha's happiness reaches its peak when her father invites Andrei to visit them the following Sunday. But Andrei is not the only man taken with Natasha; the glittering and dissolute Anatol has earlier asked his sister, Helena, to arrange his introduction to the young beauty. The scene ends with an écossaise.
February 1812, at Prince Bolkonsky's mansion in town. Prince Andrei has proposed to Natasha, and her father brings her to meet old Prince Bolkonsky (bass-baritone). The servants' chat reveals that the old man is ill-tempered and refuses to accept his son's betrothal to Natasha. He has insisted that Andrei should spend a year abroad before marrying. Natasha and her father arrive and are told the old man cannot see them. Instead, his unmarried daughter Princess Marya (mezzo-soprano) meets with them, and treats Natasha with stilted, hypocritical friendliness. Count Rostov makes his excuses and departs. The old Prince appears, in nightcap and dressing-gown. With boorish insincerity, he apologises to Natasha for his attire to Natasha, mutters threateningly, and generally addresses her in a contemptuous and wounding tone before leaving. Marya starts to excuse his behaviour, but Natasha understands all too well that he is the obstacle to her marriage. Count Rostov returns and goes to speak with Marya, leaving Natasha alone. She is outraged at her treatment by her fiancé's family, but remains very much in love with him, and is distressed to learn that Andrei has been forced to go abroad for a year. Retaining as much dignity as she can, she refuses to listen further to Marya's ingratiating attempts at polite conversation, and rushes out.
May 1812, in the reception room of Pierre Bezukhov's house. At an evening party, Pierre's wife Helena congratulates Natashal on her betrothal to Prince Andrei, showering him with compliments on her fiancé. But she also lets slip to Natasha that Helena's brother, Prince Anatol Kuraghin, revealed only the night before that he had fallen madly in love with Natasha and was pining for her. Count Rostov notices Natasha's distress, and attempts to make their excuses and leave, but Helena laughs at Natasha's embarassment and refuses to accept their departure. Natasha reflects that since neither Helena nor Pierre seems at all shocked at Anatol's confessed passion for her, she should not be shocked either. She quickly regains her self control and dismisses the incident. Anatol then arrives, and as the dancing resumes, proceedswith disturbing self-confidence to passionately woo her, even going so far as to kiss her despite her protests. He slips a note into her hand that reads: "To be loved by you or die". She is taken aback. Sonia warns her to steer clear of Anatol, and Count Rostov hurries the girls out of the house, not wishing to expose them any longer to people who are notorious for their frivolity.
12 June 1812, in Dolokhov's apartments. Anatol tells his friend Dolokov of his scheme to elope with Natasha and take her abroad. Dolokhov tries to curb his friend's enthusiasm, pointing out the risks of the plan, but his arguments are unsuccessful. Anatol, inflamed with desire, seems determined to risk everything in one throw. Anatol's coachman Balaga (bass) enters and announces that he has procured a carriage and fast horses to abet his master's elopment. A good-natured servant, Balaga seems willing to do anything for his master, and Anatol rewards his loyalty with several glasses of wine, which make him euphorically drunk as he, Anatol, and Dolokhov drink to the Anatol's coming adventure. Anatol makes his musically nostalgic farewells to Moscow and to his gipsy mistress Matriosha, who wishes him every happiness, before boarding the sledge with Balaga and setting off, in a blizzard, to his planned assignation with Natasha.
The same night, in a room in the house of Maria Dmitrievna Akhrossimova. Natasha is staying with Maria Akhrossimova while Count Rostov is away. She waits there alone, anxiously anticipating the arrival of Anatol. But when Anatol arrives, Natasha's maid Dunyasha rushes in to report that Sonya has revealed the elopement plans to Maria Akhrossimova, who has ordered the butler to bar Anatol from the door. Akhrossimova lectures Natasha on her behaviour, and the girl begs to be left alone, and dissolves into tears of despair. Pierre Bezukhov arrives and Akhrossimova, still furious, tells him what has happened. Pierre has a long-established friendship with Natasha, and gently explains that her plan to marry Anatol was hopeless from the start, because Kuraghin is already married. Natasha, overcome with remorse for her infidelity to Prince Andrei, begs Pierre to ask the Prince to forgive her. Moved by her dismay, Pierre promises to do this, and also confesses that, were he free himself, he would throw himself at her feet and propose marriage. Then, abashed by his own outburst, he runs out, as Natasha calls for Sonya and considers suicide.
Later the same night, at the Bezhukovs' house. Hélène is entertaining guests, among whom is a French doctor, Dr. Metivier, who recounts his ejection from old Bolkonsky's house, the old man having accused him of being a French spy. Pierre arrives, and angrily confronts Anatol about Natasha. The quarrel grows violent, and Pierre physically attacks Anatol. Fisticuffs ensue, and Pierre overwhelms Anatol, then forces him to hand over Natasha's love letters. He insists that Anatol leave Moscow immediately, never to return and never to mention the matter to anyone. Anatol, taken aback by Pierre's vehemence, agrees, then departs only formally reconciled with his brother-in-law. Pierre, left alone, reflects on the course of his life, and his search for an ideal of which his love for Natasha appears to be the fulfilment. His musings are abruptly interrupted by the arrival of his friend, Lieutenant Colonel Denissov (baritone). Denissov announces that "Napoleon has mustered his armies at our frontiers. It looks like war."
The same day, at Napoleon's command post at the Shevardino redoubt. Napoleon (baritone) watches the battle, surrounded by his staff. The music is a sinister sort of scherzo in Prokofiev's most sardonic vein, as the Emperor broods on the possible outcome of the battle, and imagines himself already at Moscow, with the city at his mercy and a delegation of citizens offering him the keys of the city; he will earn history's gratitude by showing clemency. But his aides-de-camp break his mood with news as to the poor progress of the battle. Several of his marshals have been killed or wounded, and reinforcements are vital. But in spite of the urgent requests from his Marshals, Napoleon at first refuses to commit his reserves. Reluctantly, he gives in. He remains sombre and perplexed as his aide, de Beausset (tenor), tries unsuccessfully to get the Emperor to eat luncheon. "Nothing is as it was," Napoleon reflects. "Yet my troops are still the same. My generals too. I myself am even more experienced. And yet this time victory is beyond me." The scene ends with a telling sign: a cannonball lands at the Emperor's feet.
Two days later, at a Council of War in a peasant's hut in the village of Fili, near Moscow. Marshal Kutuzov is surrounded by his generals. They face a dilemma; defend Moscow and put the army at risk; or retreat and leave the capital at the enemy's mercy. Each gives his opinion on the strategic posture to adopt. Some insist on the importance of rejoining the battle under the walls of Moscow. Others insist that the Russian armies are in a weak position, and that a provisional retreat would be preferable. After listening to all of them, Kutuzov knows it is up to him to decide. "To conquer, we must give ground," he concludes. "If we deliver Moscow to the enemy, we will put in his hands the weapons of hiw own defeat." He orders a strategic withdrawal, and the command goes out ordering the Russian troops to move away from Moscow. Left alone, Kutuzov expresses his belief in the rightness of his decision to withdraw in a soliloquy to a broad tune of immediate appeal and memorability. He reasserts his faith in a Russian victory, confident that the sacrifice of Moscow will be Russia's salvation, and contemplates the city, alight with the sun's rays, as a chorus of soldiers passes in the distance.
Moscow, under French occupation. The delegation that Napoleon had expected has not appeared. Instead, Moscow's inhabitants have started to evacuate, setting fire to the buildings rather than surrender the city to the invader - to the amazement of the French generals. Pierre - having learned that the Rostovs, who had turned their house into a temporary hospital, have safely left Moscow, taking the wounded with them; Natasha does not know that Andrei is among the wounded. Pierre moves through the Moscow mob, his imagination aflame with the idea of encountering Napoleon and killing him. Several arsonists are arrested and summarily shot. Pierre and a soldier, Platon Karataiev (tenor), are shoved in among a group of accused incendiaries, but Marshal Davout decides not to shoot them and they are marched off as prisoners. Karataiev expresses his regrets to Pierre about the city's fate, but also his hope for the future: "The worm eats the cabbage, but he is the first to cop it - that's what the old folks say." Chaos spreads throughout Moscow. Madmen escape from an asylum, screaming gibberish. Actors flee from a theatre that has gone up in flames. Surrounded by his staff, Napoleon appears just as the building in front of him collapses, gutted by fire. He makes his way through the thick smoke of burning Moscow, as a crowd of Muscovites passes, bearing corpses of some of those shot by the firing-squads, and proclaiming their resolve to avenge the people and the Motherland. Napoleon, defeated by the city's resistance, cannot help but be impressed by the courage of its inhabitants.
In an izba (peasant's hut) at Mytischi, near Moscow. This tableau shows Prokofiev at his most intense and dramatic. Andrei lies wounded and delirious with fever. He thinks he can hear a chorus dully repeating the obsessive onomatapoeia 'Piti-piti-piti' as the blood pounds in his ears. In lucid moments he thinks of Natasha. Suddenly, she appears, dressed in white. She has learned of his presence among the Rostovs' party, and has come to beg his forgiveness for betraying him. Andrei harbours no resentment for what is past, and is overjoyed to see her again. He tells her that he loves her more than ever, and their voices join to renew their vows of love, and celebrate what he thinks of as new happiness. Natasha persuades Andrei that he will recover, but he is soon overcome by delirium, dreaming of their first dance together as he lapses into his death throes. As his last spasm comes, the sound of the chorus chanting 'Piti-piti-piti' becomes ever more insistent, then abruptly stops. Silence.
November 1812, on the road to Smolensk. A storm is raging as the French troops retreat. Two French officers, Rambal and Bonnet, assess the extent of their defeat: "We are retreting, having left behind half our men and half our guns, with no support or victuals. Flocks of crows swirl above our heads, and starving dogs have followed us ever since we left Moscow." The French are escorting a group of Russian prisoners of war, amongst them Pierre and Karataiev. Karataiev is so exhausted he can march no further, and a French private shoots him as a straggler. Just then, a detachment of Russian partisans, commanded by Denissov, launch a guerilla attack on the French convoy and frees the prisoners. Denissov recognises Pierre, and tells him: "The enemy is beaten. The Russians are returning to Moscow like blood to the heart." Denissov then reveals that Andrei is dead, and that Natasha is safely back in Moscow. A Russian advance guard appears, followed by Marshal Kutuzov himself. He is tired, but confirms the Russian victory: "I thank the Lord and our army; I thank you all. The motherland is safe." Everyone present joins in a great chorus of solemn joy, thanksgiving, and peroration to the eternal Russian spirit.