Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev 1891 – 1953 was a Russian composer who mastered numerous musical genres and came to be admired as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.
Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka(now Krasnoye in Donetsk oblast), Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. He 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 felt ‘reluctance to tackle the black notes’.
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. Sergei Taneyev suggested that Prokofiev should start lessons in composition with Alexander Goldenweiser, who declined, and Reinhold Glière. Reinhold Glière visited Prokofiev in Sontsovka 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 Sontsovka 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 Saint Petersburg and applied to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, after encouragement by the director Alexander Glazunov, who was later unhappy with Prokofiev’s music.
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, Anatol Liadov, Nikolai Tcherepnin and Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov. Later, he would regret squandering his opportunity to learn more from Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov. He also became friends with Boris Asafiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky.
As a member of the Saint 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, he 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 he frequently caused scandals with his forward looking works.
His first two piano concertos were composed around this time. In 1911 help arrived from renowned Russian musicologist and critic Alexander Ossovsky, who wrote a letter in strong support of Sergei Prokofiev to famous music publisher P.I.Jurgenson, thus a contract was offered to the composer.
Prokofiev 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. Soon afterwards, he made a trip to London where he made contact with Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky.
During World War I, Prokofiev returned again to the Conservatory, now studying the organ. He composed his opera The Gambler 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 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. Hence, the symphony is more or less classical in style but incorporates more modern musical elements.
After a brief stay with his mother in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, because of worries of the enemy capturing Petrograd (the new name for Saint 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, he headed for the USA. Despite this, he had already developed acquaintances with senior Bolsheviks including Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Education, who told him: “You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way.”
Arriving in San Francisco, he 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 premiere was canceled.
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. He soon found himself in financial difficulties, and, in April 1920, he left for Paris, not wanting to return to Russia as a failure.
Paris was better prepared for Prokofiev’s musical style. He reaffirmed his contacts with the Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes and with Igor Stravinsky, and returned to some of his older, unfinished works, such as the Third Piano Concerto. The Love for Three Oranges finally premièred in Chicago in December 1921, under the composer’s baton. The work was performed throughout Europe in that time, and the reception was good thanks to that fact.
In March 1922, Prokofiev moved with his mother to the town of Ettal in 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 he decided to stay in Europe. In 1923, he married the Spanish singer Lina Llubera (1897-1989), before moving back to Paris.
There, several of his works (for example the Second Symphony) were performed, but critical reception was lukewarm. He did not particularly like Igor Stravinsky‘s later works, and it has been suggested that his use of text from Igor Stravinsky‘s A Symphony of Psalms to characterise the invading Teutonic knights in the film score for Sergei Eisenstein‘s Alexander Nevsky (1938) was intended as an attack on Igor Stravinsky‘s musical idiom.
Around 1927, the virtuoso’s situation brightened; he had some exciting commissions from Sergei 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, he 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 to long for Russia again; he moved more and more of his premieres 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 Theater 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 problems related to the ballet’s original ‘happy end’ (contrary to Shakespeare), and the premiere was postponed for several years.
In 1935 Prokofiev moved back to the Soviet Union permanently; his family came a year later. 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. 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 Zdravitsa (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 and Peter and the Wolf, among others) 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 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.
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 22 June 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. By this time his relationship with the 25 year old writer Mira Mendelson had finally led to his separation from his wife Lina, although they were never technically divorced: indeed Prokofiev had tried to persuade Lina and their sons to accompany him as evacuees out of Moscow, but Lina opted to stay in Moscow.
In 1943 Prokofiev joined Sergei Eisenstein in Alma Ata to compose more film music (Ivan the Terrible). Early that year he also played excerpts from War and Peace to members of the Bolshoi Theatre collective. However, the Soviet government had opinions about the opera which resulted in numerous revisions.
In 1944, Prokofiev moved to a composer’s colony outside of Moscow in order 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 due to chronic high blood pressure. He never fully recovered from this injury, which severely reduced his productivity rate in the ensuing 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 (for Sviatoslav Richter) before the Party, as part of the so called Zhdanov Decree, suddenly changed its opinion about his music. The end of the war allowed overall creative attention to turn inward again, resulting in the Party tightening its reins on domestic artists. Prokofiev’s music was now seen as a grave example of formalism, and was branded as ‘anti democratic’. With a number of his works banned, most concert and theatre administrators panicked and would not program Prokofiev’s music at all, leaving Prokofiev in severe financial straits.
On February 20, 1948, Prokofiev’s wife Lina was arrested for ‘espionage’, as she tried to send money to her mother in Catalonia. She was sentenced to 20 years, but was eventually released after Stalin’s death and later left the Soviet Union.
His 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 him spending only an hour or two each day on composition.
In 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. The last public performance of his lifetime was the première of the Seventh Symphony in 1952, a piece of somewhat bittersweet character. The music was written for a children’s television program.
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.
The leading Soviet musical periodical reported Prokofiev’s death as a brief item on page 116. The first 115 pages were devoted to the death of Stalin. Usually Prokofiev’s death is attributed to cerebral haemorrhage (bleeding into the brain). Nevertheless it is known that he was persistently ill for eight years before he died, and was plagued during that length of time by headaches, nausea and dizziness, which is why the precise nature of Prokofiev’s terminal illness is uncertain.
Lina Prokofieva outlived her estranged husband by many years, dying in London in early 1989. Royalties from her late husband’s music provided her a modest income. Their sons Sviatoslav (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.