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[First published 29 Feb 2016 in the WRTI Arts Desk, reprinted here by permission.]

March 5th is the anniversary of a remarkable day in music history. Sergei Prokofiev died, but almost unnoticed, because it was the same day that Josef Stalin, the tyrant who had caused so much pain in the composer’s life, also died. WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at this ironic coincidence.

ProkofievStampWhen deaths coincide, fame will have its say. Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died on the same day, but one greatly overshadowed the other. Milton Berle and Billy Wilder both died the same day, but the news was all about a third death, Dudley Moore’s. Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis died on a November day in 1963, but most people didn’t learn of it because it was the very day John F. Kennedy was killed.

And few knew on March 5th, 1953 that Sergei Prokofiev had died, because Josef Stalin died the same day. Prokofiev had no flowers at his funeral; every flower in Moscow went to Stalin’s.

The famous Prokofiev had returned to Russia from the West in the 1930s, courted by the Soviets. It was a deal with the devil, though, and Prokofiev paid dearly. He received his house and his commissions, but was hounded and shoved aside as he cranked out cantatas praising the regime.

So Prokofiev paid, and Prokofiev died, and when his nemesis—perhaps the greatest monster of the 20th century—died hours later, fame had its say.

But only for a time.

For Stalin is just the name of a dead monster. As long as there is music, though, the name of Prokofiev will never die.

From Prokofiev’s score to the Eisenstein film Ivan the Terrible:

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