Sergei (or Sergey) Sergeyevich Prokofiev (April 23, 1891–March 5, 1953) was a Russian composer, pianist and conductor. Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891, in Sontsovka (now Krasne, Krasnoarmiisk Raion, Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine), an isolated rural estate in the Yekaterinoslav Governorate of the Russian Empire. His father, originally from Moscow, was an agronomist. Prokofiev’s mother, Maria (née Zhitkova), came from a family of serfs owned by the Sheremetev family, where serf-children were taught theatre and arts from an early age. Having lost two daughters, she devoted her life to music and spent two months a year in Moscow or St. Petersburg taking piano lessons. Sergei was inspired by hearing his mother practicing the piano in the evenings – mostly works by Chopin and Beethoven – and composed his first piano composition at the age of five, an ‘Indian Gallop’, which was written down by his mother. At the age of nine he was composing his first opera, The Giant, as well as an overture and various other pieces.
In 1902, Prokofiev’s mother met Sergei Taneyev, director of the Moscow Conservatory, who initially suggested that Prokofiev should start lessons in piano and composition with Alexander Goldenweiser. When Taneyev was unable to arrange this, he instead arranged for composer and pianist Reinhold Glière to spend the summer of 1902 in Sontsovka teaching Prokofiev. This first series of lessons culminated, at the 11-year-old Prokofiev’s insistence, with the budding composer making his first attempt to write a symphony. Glière subsequently revisited Sontsovka the following summer to give further teaching. Equipped with the necessary theoretical tools, Prokofiev started experimenting with dissonant harmonies and unusual time signatures in a series of short piano pieces which he called “ditties,” laying the basis for his own musical style. Despite his growing talent, Prokofiev’s parents hesitated over starting their son on a musical career at such an early age, and initially considered the possibility of his attending a quality high school in Moscow.
By 1904, Prokofiev’s mother had decided instead on Saint Petersburg, and she and Prokofiev visited the capital to explore the possibility of their moving there for his education. They were introduced to composer Alexander Glazunov, a professor at the Conservatory, who asked to see Prokofiev and his music; Glazunov was so impressed that he urged Prokofiev’s mother that her son apply to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. By this point, Prokofiev had composed two more operas, Desert Islands and The Feast during the Plague, and was working on his fourth, Undina. He passed the introductory tests and entered the Conservatory that same year. During this period, he studied under, among others, Alexander Winkler for piano, Anatoly Lyadov for harmony and counterpoint, Nikolai Tcherepnin for conducting, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestration. He also shared classes with the composers Boris Asafyev and Nikolai Myaskovsky, the latter becoming a relatively close and lifelong friend. As a member of the Saint Petersburg music scene, Prokofiev developed a reputation as a musical rebel. In 1909, he graduated from his class in composition but continued at the Conservatory, studying piano under Anna Yesipova and continuing his conducting lessons under Tcherepnin.
In 1910, Prokofiev’s father died and Sergei’s financial support ceased. Fortunately he had started making a name for himself as a composer and pianist outside the Conservatory, making appearances at the St Petersburg Evenings of Contemporary Music. There he performed several of his more adventurous piano works, such as his highly chromatic and dissonant Etudes, Op. 2 (1909). In 1911, the renowned Russian musicologist and critic Alexander Ossovsky wrote a supportive letter to music publisher Boris P. Jurgenson, and a contract was offered to the composer. Prokofiev’s harmonic experimentation continued with Sarcasms for piano, Op. 17 (1912), which makes extensive use of polytonality, and Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-1917). He composed his first two piano concertos around this time. Prokofiev made his first foreign trip in 1913, travelling to Paris and London where he first encountered Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
In 1914, Prokofiev finished his career at the Conservatory by entering the so-called ‘battle of the pianos’, a competition open to the five best piano students for which the prize was a Schreder grand piano: Prokofiev won. Soon afterwards, he journeyed to London where he made contact with the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev commissioned Prokofiev’s first ballet, Ala and Lolli. Diaghilev then commissioned the ballet Chout (The Fool or “The Tale of the Buffoon who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons”). During World War I, Prokofiev returned to the Conservatory and studied organ in order to avoid conscription. He composed The Gambler based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name, but rehearsals were plagued by problems and the scheduled 1917 première had to be canceled because of the February Revolution. In the summer of that year, Prokofiev composed his first symphony, the Classical. This was his own name for the symphony. This symphony was also an exact contemporary of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19, which was scheduled to premiere in November 1917. The first performances of both works had to wait.
After completing the score of Seven, They Are Seven, a “Chaldean invocation” for chorus and orchestra, Prokofiev decided to try his fortunes in America until the turmoil in his homeland had passed and set out in 1918. Arriving in San Francisco, CA, he was soon compared to other famous Russian exiles, such as Sergei Rachmaninoff. His debut solo concert in New York led to several further engagements. He also received a contract from the music director of the Chicago Opera Association, Cleofonte Campanini, for the production of his new opera The Love for Three Oranges. In April 1920, he left for Paris, not wanting to return to Russia just yet. In Paris Prokofiev reaffirmed his contacts with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and also completed some of his older, unfinished works, such as the Third Piano Concerto. The premiere of Chout in Paris on May 17, 1921, was a huge success and was greeted with great admiration by an audience that included Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel.
In March 1922, Prokofiev moved with his mother to the town of Ettal in the Bavarian Alps, where for over a year he concentrated on an opera project, The Fiery Angel, based on the novel by Valery Bryusov. By this time his later music had acquired a following in Russia, and he received invitations to return there, but he decided to stay in Europe. In 1923, Prokofiev married the Spanish singer Carolina Codina (1897–1989) whose stage name was Lina Llubera, before moving back to Paris where several of his works were performed. Diaghilev commissioned Le pas d’acier (The Steel Step), a ‘modernist’ ballet score intended to portray the industrialization of the Soviet Union. It was enthusiastically received by Parisian audiences and critics. Around 1924, Prokofiev was introduced to Christian Science. He began to practice its teachings, which he believed to be beneficial to his health and to his fiery temperament, and remained faithful for the rest of his life.
In 1927, Prokofiev made his first concert tour in the Soviet Union. Over the course of more than two months, he spent time in Moscow and Leningrad (as Saint Petersburg had been renamed. In 1928, he completed his Third Symphony, which was broadly based on his unperformed opera The Fiery Angel. During 1928–29, Prokofiev composed what was to be the last ballet for Diaghilev, The Prodigal Son. That summer, Prokofiev completed the Divertimento, Op. 43 (which he had started in 1925) and revised his Sinfonietta, Op. 5/48, a work started in his days at the Conservatory. In October that year, he had a car crash while driving his family back to Paris from their holiday. As the car turned over, Prokofiev pulled some muscles on his left hand and was therefore unable to perform in Moscow during his tour shortly after the accident, but he was able to enjoy watching performances of his music from the audience. With his left hand healed, Prokofiev toured the United States successfully at the start of 1930, propped up by his recent European success. That year Prokofiev began his first non-Diaghilev ballet On the Dnieper, Op. 51, a work commissioned by Serge Lifar, who had been appointed maitre de ballet at the Paris Opéra. In 1931 and 1932, he completed his fourth and fifth piano concertos. The following year saw the completion of the Symphonic Song, Op. 57.
By the early 1930s, both Europe and America were suffering from the Great Depression, which inhibited both new opera and ballet productions, though audiences for Prokofiev’s appearances as a pianist were, at least in Europe at least, undiminished. Having been homesick for some time, Prokofiev began to build substantial bridges with the Soviet Union. His premieres and commissions were increasingly under the auspices of the Soviet Union. One such was Lieutenant Kijé, which was commissioned as the score to a Soviet film. Another commission, from the Kirov Theatre was the ballet Romeo and Juliet, composed to a scenario created by Adrian Piotrovsky and Sergei Radlov. In 1936, Prokofiev and his family settled permanently in Moscow. In that year he composed one of his most famous works, Peter and the Wolf, for Natalya Sats’s Central Children’s Theatre.
Sats also persuaded Prokofiev to write two songs for children – “Sweet Song”, and “Chatterbox” which were eventually joined by “The Little Pigs”, published as Three Children’s Songs, Op. 68. Prokofiev also composed the gigantic Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, originally intended for performance during the anniversary year. Forced to adapt to the new circumstances, whatever misgivings he had about them in private, Prokofiev wrote a series of “mass songs” (Opp. 66, 79, 89), using the lyrics of officially approved Soviet poets. In 1938, Prokofiev collaborated with Eisenstein on the historical epic Alexander Nevsky for which he composed some of his most inventive and dramatic music. Although the film had a very poor sound recording, Prokofiev adapted much of his score into a large-scale cantata for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and chorus, which was extensively performed and recorded. In the wake of Alexander Nevsky’s success, Prokofiev composed his first Soviet opera Semyon Kotko, which was intended to be produced by the director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Prokofiev was also ‘invited’ to compose Zdravitsa (literally translated ‘Cheers!’, but more often given the English title Hail to Stalin) (Op. 85) to celebrate Joseph Stalin’s 60th birthday.
Later in 1939, Prokofiev composed his Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8, Opp. 82–84, widely known today as the “War Sonatas.” In 1941, Prokofiev suffered the first of several heart attacks, resulting in a gradual decline in health. Prokofiev had been considering making an opera out of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, when news of the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941 made the subject seem all the more timely. Prokofiev took two years to compose his original version of War and Peace. Because of the war he was evacuated together with a large number of other artists, initially to the Caucasus where he composed his Second String Quartet. During the war years, restrictions on style and the demand that composers should write in a ‘socialist realist’ style were slackened, and Prokofiev was generally able to compose in his own way. The Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 80; The Year 1941, Op. 90; and the Ballade for the Boy Who Remained Unknown, Op. 93 all came from this period. In 1943 Prokofiev joined Eisenstein in Alma-Ata, the largest city in Kazakhstan, to compose more film music (Ivan the Terrible), and the ballet Cinderella (Op. 87), one of his most melodious and celebrated compositions. The underrated ballet The Stone Flower also dates from 1943. His Eighth Piano Sonata had a triumphant premiere on December 30, 1944.
In 1944, Prokofiev spent time at a composer’s colony outside Moscow in order to compose his Fifth Symphony (Op. 100). Prokofiev conducted its first performance on January 13, 1945. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a concussion after a fall due to chronic high blood pressure. He never fully recovered from this injury, and was forced on medical advice to restrict his composing activity. The composer’s last creative efforts were directed largely toward the production of “patriotic” and “national” works, typified by the cantata Flourish, Mighty Homeland (1947). Prokofiev had time to write his postwar Sixth Symphony and his Ninth Piano Sonata (for Sviatoslav Richter) before the so-called “Zhdanov Decree”. In early 1948, following a meeting of Soviet composers convened by Andrei Zhdanov, the Politburo issued a resolution denouncing Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, and Khachaturian of the crime of “formalism.” Prokofiev’s latest opera projects, among them his desperate attempt to appease the cultural authorities, The Story of a Real Man, were quickly cancelled by the Kirov Theatre. By August 1948, Prokofiev was in severe financial straits, his personal debt amounting to 180,000 rubles.
This snub, in combination with his declining health, caused Prokofiev progressively to withdraw from public life and from various activities, and increasingly he devoted himself exclusively to his own work. After a serious relapse in 1949, his doctors ordered him to limit his activities, limiting him to composing for only an hour a day. In spring 1949 he wrote his Cello Sonata in C, Op. 119, for the 22-year old Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the first performance in 1950, with Sviatoslav Richter. For Rostropovich, Prokofiev also extensively recomposed his Cello Concerto, transforming it into a Symphony-Concerto, his last major masterpiece and a landmark in the cello and orchestra repertory today. The last public performance he attended was the première of the Seventh Symphony in 1952. Prokofiev died at the age of 61 on March 5, 1953, the same day Joseph Stalin’s death was announced. In breathing new life into the symphony, sonata, and concerto, Sergei Prokofiev emerged as one of the truly original musical voices of the twentieth century. Though regarded as impossibly dissonant and avant-garde in his youth, Prokofiev can now be seen as in the direct line of Russian composers, embodying the bold and colorful strokes of 19th-century nationalists into a 20th-century style strongly marked by its brittle wit and capacity for pungent dramatic characterization.
The following works by Sergei Prokofiev are contained in my collection:
Ala and Lolly (ballet, 1914): Scythian Suite, op. 20 (1920).
(Piano) Concerto No. 1 in DbM, op. 19 (1911).
(Piano) Concerto No. 2 in gm, op. 16 (1913).
(Piano) Concerto No. 3 in CM, op. 26 (1921).
Lieutenant Kije (film, 1933): Symphonic Suite, op. 60.
The Love for Three Oranges (1919): Symphonic Suite, op. 33b (1924).
Overture on Hebrew Themes, op. 34b (1919/1934).
Peter and the Wolf, A Symphonic Musical Fairy Tale for Children, op. 67 (1936).
Romeo and Juliet ballet, op. 64 (1938): Excerpts.
Russian Overture, op. 72 (1936).
Symphony No. 1 in DM, op. 25, Classical (1917).
Symphony No. 4, op. 47 (1930).
Symphony No. 5, op. 100 (1944).
Symphony No. 7, op. 131 (1952).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources