Sergei Prokofiev



Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev born in Sontsivka (now Borysivka), Ukraine of the Russian Empire on April 27, 1891. He was a Soviet composer who mastered numerous musical genres and came to be admired as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

Prokofiev displayed unusual musical abilities by the age of five. His first piano composition to be written down (by his mother), an 'Indian Gallop', was in the key of F Lydian (F major with a B natural instead of B flat) as the young Prokofiev did not like to touch the black keys. By the age of seven, he had also learned to play chess. Much like music, chess would remain a passion his entire life.

At the age of nine he was composing his first opera, The Giant, as well as an overture and miscellaneous pieces.

In 1902 Prokofiev's mother obtained an audience with Sergei Taneyev, director of the Moscow Conservatoire. Taneyev suggested that Prokofiev should start lessons. Glière visited Prokofiev in Sontsivka twice during the summer to teach him. By then Prokofiev had already produced a number of innovative pieces. As soon as he had the necessary theoretical tools, he quickly started experimenting, laying the base for his own musical style.

After a while, Prokofiev felt that the isolation in Sontsivka was restricting his further musical development. Although his parents were not too keen on forcing their son into a musical career at such an early age, in 1904 he moved to St. Petersburg and applied to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, after encouragement by the director Alexander Glazunov. By this point Prokofiev had composed two more operas, Desert Islands and The Feast during the Plague and was working on his fourth, Undine. He passed the introductory tests and started his composition studies the same year. Being several years younger than most of his classmates, he was viewed as eccentric and arrogant, and he often expressed dissatisfaction with much of the education, which he found boring. During this period he studied under, among others, Anatoly Liadov, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Later, he would regret squandering his opportunity to learn more from Rimsky-Korsakov. He also became friends with Boris Astafiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky.

As a member of the St. Petersburg music scene, Prokofiev eventually earned a reputation as an enfant terrible, while also getting praise for his original compositions, which he would perform himself on the piano. In 1909, Sergei graduated from his class in composition, getting less than impressive marks. He continued at the Conservatory, but now concentrated on playing the piano and conducting. His piano lessons went far from smoothly, but the composition classes made an impression on him. His teacher encouraged his musical experimentation, and his works from this period display more intensity than earlier ones.

In 1910, Prokofiev's father died and Sergei's economic support ceased. Luckily, at that time, he had started making a name for himself as a composer, although his music often was accepted with criticism and controversy. His first two piano concertos were composed around this time. The composer made his first excursion out of Russia in 1913, travelling to Paris and London where he first encountered Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

In 1914, Prokofiev left the Conservatory with the highest marks of his class, a feat which won him a grand piano.

During World War I, Prokofiev returned again to the Academy, now studying the organ. He composed an opera based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Gambler, but the rehearsals were plagued by problems and the première scheduled for 1917 had to be cancelled because of the February Revolution. In summer of the same year, Prokofiev composed his first symphony, the Classical. This was his own name for the symphony which was written in the style that, according to Prokofiev, Joseph Haydn would have used if he had been alive at the time. After a brief stay with his mother in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, because of worries of the enemy capturing Petrograd (the new name for St. Petersburg), he returned in 1918, but he was now determined to leave Russia, at least temporarily. In the current Russian state of unrest, he saw no room for his experimental music and, in May of the same year, he headed for the USA.

Arriving in San Francisco, Prokofiev was immediately compared to other famous Russian exiles (such as Sergei Rachmaninoff), and he started out successfully with a solo concert in New York, leading to several further engagements. He also received a contract for the production of his new opera The Love for Three Oranges but, due to illness and the death of the director, the première was cancelled. This was another example of Prokofiev's bad luck in operatic matters. The failure also cost him his American solo career, since the opera took too much time and effort. The talented Russian composer soon found himself in financial difficulties, and, in April 1920, he left for Paris, not wanting to return back to Russia.

Paris was better prepared for Prokofiev's musical style. He reaffirmed his contacts with the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and with Stravinsky, and returned to some of his older, unfinished works, such as the Third Piano Concerto. The Prokofiev then moved with his mother to the Bavarian Alps for over a year so he could concentrate fully on his composing. Most of his time was spent on an old opera project, The Fiery Angel, based on the novel The Fiery Angel by Valery Bryusov. By this time his later music had acquired a certain following in Russia, and he received invitations to return there, but Sergei felt that his new European career was more important. In 1923, he married the Spanish singer Lina Llubera (1897-1989), before moving back to Paris.

There, a number of his works (for example the Second Symphony) was performed, but critical reception was lukewarm, perhaps because he could no longer really lay claim to being a "novelty”. Around 1927, the virtuoso's situation brightened; he had some exciting commissions from Diaghilev and made a number of concert tours in Russia; in addition, he enjoyed a very successful staging of The Love for Three Oranges in Leningrad (as Saint Petersburg was then known). Two older operas (one of them The Gambler) were also played in Europe and in 1928 Prokofiev produced his Third Symphony, which was broadly based on his unperformed opera The Fiery Angel. The years 1931 and 1932 saw the completion of his fourth and fifth piano concertos.

In 1929, the composer suffered a car accident, which slightly injured his hands and prevented him from touring in Moscow, but in turn permitted him to enjoy contemporary Russian music. After his hands healed, he made a new attempt at touring in the United States, and this time he was received very warmly, propped up by his recent success in Europe. This, in turn, propelled him to commence a major tour through Europe.

In the early 1930s, Prokofiev was starting for Russia again; he moved more and more of his premières and commissions to his home country instead of Paris. One such was Lieutenant Kije, which was commissioned as the score to a Russian film. Another commission, from the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad, was the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Today, this is one of Prokofiev's best-known works, and it contains some of the most inspired and poignant passages in his whole output. However, there were numerous choreographic problems, and the première was postponed for several years.

Prokofiev was soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Piero Coppola, in the first recording of his third piano concerto, recorded in London by His Master's Voice in June 1932. The recording has exceptionally clear sound and Prokofiev's own virtuosic performance remains very impressive. Prokofiev also recorded some of his solo piano music for HMV in Paris in February 1935; these recordings were issued on CD by Pearl. In 1938, he conducted the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in a recording of the second suite from his Romeo and Juliet ballet; this performance was also later released on LP and CD. Another reported recording with Prokofiev and the Moscow Philharmonic was of the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh as soloist; Everest Records later released this recording on a LP, along with a performance of Khachaturian's violin concerto with that composer conducting the Philharmonic with much inferior sound compared to the EMI recording with Khachaturian and Oistrakh.

In 1934, Prokofiev moved back to the Soviet Union permanently, but his family came a year after him. At this time, the official Soviet policy towards music changed; a special bureau, the "Composers' Union", was established in order to keep track of the artists and their doings, and regulations were drawn up outlining what kind of music was acceptable. By limiting outside influences, these policies would gradually cause almost complete isolation of Soviet composers from the rest of the world. Willing 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, and also the oratorio "Zdravnitsa" (Hail to Stalin) (Op. 85), which secured his position as a Soviet composer and put an end to persecution. At the same time Prokofiev also composed music for children (Three Songs for Children, Peter and the Wolf, and so on) as well as the gigantic Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, which was, however, never performed. The première of the opera Semyon Kotko was postponed because the producer Vsevolod Meyerhold was imprisoned and executed. In 1938, Prokofiev collaborated with the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein on the historical epic Alexander Nevsky. For this he composed some of his most inventive dramatic music. Although the film had very poor sound recording, Prokofiev adapted much of his score into a cantata, which has been extensively performed and recorded.

In 1941, Prokofiev suffered the first of several heart attacks, resulting in a gradual decline in health. Because of the war, he was periodically evacuated to the south together with a large number of other artists. This had consequences for his family life in Moscow, and his relationship with the 25-year-old Mira Mendelson (1915-1968) finally led to his separation from his wife Lina, although they remained married for the next seven years. It should be mentioned that marriage with foreigners had been made illegal and some believe that the breakup with his wife was forced.

The outbreak of war inspired Prokofiev to a new opera project, War and Peace, which he worked on for two years, along with more film music for Sergei Eisenstein and the second string quartet. However, the Soviet government had opinions about the opera which resulted in numerous revisions and no première. In 1944, Prokofiev moved to an estate outside of Moscow, to compose his Fifth Symphony (Op. 100) which would turn out to be the most popular of all his symphonies, both within Russia and abroad. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a concussion after a fall. From this injury he never really recovered, and it severely lowered his productivity rate in later years, though some of his last pieces were as fine as anything he had composed before.

Prokofiev had time to write his postwar Sixth Symphony and a ninth piano sonata before the Party suddenly changed its opinion about his music. The end of the war allowed attention to be turned inwards again and the Party tightened its reins on domestic artists. Prokofiev's music was now seen as a grave example of formalism, and dangerous to the Soviet people.

On February 20, 1948, the same year Prokofiev married Mira, his wife Lina was arrested for 'espionage', as she tried to send money to her mother in Spain. She was sentenced to 20 years, but was eventually released after Stalin's death and later left the Soviet Union. Prokofiev’s latest opera projects were quickly cancelled by the Kirov Theatre. This snub, in combination with his declining health, caused Prokofiev to withdraw more and more from active musical life. His doctors ordered him to limit his activities, which resulted in spending only an hour or two each day on composition. The last public performance of his lifetime was the première of the Seventh Symphony in 1952, a piece of somewhat bittersweet character, for which Prokofiev was asked to substitute a cheerful ending, because the music was written for a children's television program.

Igor Stravinsky characterized him as the greatest Russian composer of his day, other than Stravinsky himself.

Prokofiev died at the age of 61 on 5 March 1953: the same day as Stalin. He had lived near Red Square, and for three days the throngs gathered to mourn Stalin making it impossible to carry Prokofiev's body out for the funeral service at the headquarters of the Soviet Composer's Union. Paper flowers and a taped recording of the funeral march from Romeo and Juliet had to be used, as all real flowers and musicians were reserved for Stalin's funeral. He is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

Lina Prokofieva outlived her ex-husband by many years, dying in London in early 1989. Royalties from her late husband's music provided her a modest income. Their sons Svyatoslav (born 1924), an architect, and Oleg (1928-1998), an artist, painter, sculptor and poet, have dedicated a large part of their lives to the promotion of their father's life and work.

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