1891 - 1953

Sergei Prokofiev

Loved for his beautiful melodies, Prokofiev also demonstrated a sense of humor-often biting-that tempered his Romanticism. He is one of the most popular 20th-century composers.

Vital Statistics

Born: April 27, 1891, Sontsovka, rural Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire).
Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow, USSR
Nationality: Russian
Genre: 20th-Century
Performed as: Pianist
During the composer's lifetime: In the mid-1930s, Stalin and the Russian Communist Party, conduct a series of violent purges and show trials, crushing all possible dissent or opposition to the dictator. After World War II, widespread cultural repression targets prominent artists.

Biographical Outline

  • Favored son: Prokofiev is born on an estate managed by his father. An only child, he is doted on by his parents. His mother supervises his early arts education and takes him to Moscow and St. Petersburg, in 1899-1900, where he sees his first operas. Sergei returns home and immediately writes one, libretto and music together. During the summer months of 1902-1903, he takes composition lessons from Reinhold Gliere, then an advanced student at the Moscow Conservatory.
  • Studies in St. Petersburg, 1904-1914: Prokofiev's parents are persuaded to let Sergei study music full time at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He completes his composition study in 1909 and graduates with performance degrees in piano and conducting in 1914, winning first prize at the examinations by playing his own First Piano Concerto (1911). His second concerto (1912), as clangorous and busy as the first, along with the Sarcasms and other published piano works, establish his reputation as an enfant terrible.
  • Challenging Stravinsky, 1914-1916: On a trip to London, Prokofiev is introduced to the famous impresario of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Impressed by the young composer, Diaghilev commissions a ballet on Russian themes, Ala and Lolli. But he rejects it, after hearing the first draft, possibly because it resembles Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Prokofiev fashions it into his Scythian Suite. Meanwhile, Diaghilev commissions Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon).
  • Upheaval, 1916-1918: Prokofiev returns to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, studying organ to avoid the draft for World War I. With Chout on hold, the composer turns to an opera that has been commissioned by the Mariinksy Theater - The Gambler. Its premiere is derailed by the revolution in February/ March, in which Tsar Nikolai II is deposed. St. Petersburg becomes a battleground as the communists foment a further revolution, which comes in October. Prokofiev leaves the city for the Caucasus, where he composes his famous "Classical" Symphony, as well as several other major works. Returning to St. Petersburg (now Petrograd) in 1918, he sees the successful premiere of his symphony.
  • America, 1918-1919: With his country in turmoil, Prokofiev decides to go abroad. He takes ship to San Francisco and then a train to New York. His concerts there meet with a hostile press and public. Prokofiev's Chicago debut is more positive, and the Chicago Opera's music director commissions him. Since he has left the orchestral parts of The Gambler in Russia, he turns to an opera he had begun sketching while waiting for his American visa - The Love For Three Oranges.
  • Foothold in Paris, 1920-1922: Prokofiev heads to Europe for the summer months of 1920-1922. In Paris, in 1921, the emigre conductor Serge Koussevitzky performs the Scythian Suite one month before the premiere of Chout. Both are wildly successful, making Prokofiev instantly famous, and the composer returns to the U.S. for the premiere of his opera and the Third Piano Concerto in Chicago. Both make a good impression, and the new concerto becomes a calling card.
  • Europe, 1922-1936: Prokofiev moves to Ettal, a small town in the Bavarian Alps where he works intensively on his next opera, The Fiery Angel. He never finds a producer for this work, although music from it appears in his Third Symphony (1928). In 1923, he marries the Spanish singer Lina Llubera with whom he has two sons. He writes two more ballets for Diaghilev (The Steel Step, 1927, and The Prodigal Son, 1929) his most successful works of the period. But Prokofiev is discouraged by public reaction to many of his works, and begins to resent the time his virtuoso career takes from composing.
  • Return to Russia: In 1924, Prokofiev registers as a Soviet citizen, and in 1927 he makes the first of three rapturously received tours of Russia. In interviews he makes clear that he intends to abide by Soviet arts policy. In 1932, he rents an apartment in Moscow, while continuing to live in Paris. The Soviets commission the film music for Lieutenant Kijé from him, and his music is performed and published in Russia throughout this time. In 1934 the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow commissions the ballet score for Romeo and Juliet. In 1936, ballet score in hand, Prokofiev returns to Russia for good, just as Stalin's show trials terrify the country.
  • Liberty Lost, 1936-40: The premiere of Romeo and Juliet is delayed until 1940 by authorities, who also refuse to allow a performance of Prokofiev's cantata celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. His socialist realist opera, Semyon Kotko (1939) is suppressed by Stalin because its German villains are unacceptable after a secret nonaggression treaty with Germany is signed that year. The children's music he writes in conformity to Soviet policy dictates is more successful, especially the fairytale Peter and the Wolf (1936), as are his film scores, such as Alexander Nevsky (1938-39).
  • World War II: When Nazi armies attack Russia, in June 1941, Prokofiev is evacuated from Moscow, returning in 1943. While much of his music is still criticized by Soviet officialdom, the Symphony No. 5 wins a Stalin Prize and many of the chamber works from this period, like the three "War Sonatas" for piano (Nos. 6-8) and the first violin sonata are constantly performed today. With his new companion, the poet Mira Mendelson, as librettist, Prokofiev completes the first version of his huge opera War and Peace and the ballet Cinderella. In June 1945, he suffers a concussion from a fall and nearly dies.
  • Denunciation and death, 1948-53: As part of the postwar policy of re-instilling obedience in Soviet artists, Prokofiev's music is denounced in Central Committee resolutions drawn up by arts commissar Andrei Zhdanov. Prokofiev is forced to make a public admission of his guilt. Broken, he continues to compose, notably revising War and Peace, and writing his Seventh Symphony. His death, on the same day as Stalin, goes unreported for a week, and only 40 people show up for a simple funeral at the Composer's Union.

Fun Facts

  • Big mouth: Prokofiev could be his own worst enemy. Something of an egomaniac, he was often rude and insulting without cause. His political naivete also cost him dearly, as he was blinded by Soviet promises and lured into returning to Russia. During the reading of Zhdanov's chilling arts policy decrees, Prokofiev continued his conversation with a neighbor, despite the shocked silence in the hall.
  • Family tragedy: Prokofiev separated from his first wife, Lina, in 1941, leaving her to care for his two sons. In 1947, she was arrested and deported to the labor camps on a bogus charge of espionage. She was released after Stalin's death, but her marriage had been arbitrarily declared illegal, leaving Prokofiev free to marry Mira Mendelson.
  • Shorthand sig: Prokofiev abbreviated his signature to only the consonants in his name.
  • Workaholic: Prokofiev might spend up to 14 hours a day composing.
  • Reach for it!: Long arms and big hands allowed Prokofiev to write and perform demanding piano music. The concertos and solo sonatas remain huge technical hurdles for most pianists who attempt to play them.
  • Hollywood Calling: Several American movie studios recruited Prokofiev, particularly Walt Disney, who wanted him to write for Fantasia (1940). Like Disney, Prokofiev liked children and technology and was, for a period, fascinated by recorded sound and film scoring.

Recommended Biography

  • Harlow Robinson, Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, 2nd edition (Viking Penguin, 2002). The definitive account in English.
  • Simon Morrison, The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years (Oxford, 2008, hardcover). Scholarly but highly readable account of the tragedy of Prokofiev's return to the Soviet Union, based on previously unavailable documents.
  • Daniel Jaffé, Sergey Prokofiev. 20th Century Composers (Phaidon, 1998). Shorter and more readable than Robinson's scholarly work.
  • Serge Prokofiev, Prokofiev By Prokofiev: A Composer's Memoir (Doubleday, 1979). Covers the years 1891-1909. Beautifully written account.

Explore the Music

Prokofiev was one of the most distinctive and original melodists of the 20th Century. Though a modernist, and capable of writing sharp dissonances, his music is always emotionally accessible, often with an underlying simplicity linked to clear thinking. Some of his Soviet-era works, especially the "official" pieces, have an unfortunate tendency to bombast, of a kind often required by the state.

  • Start here: Some of Prokofiev's most popular compositions are the ballet Romeo and Juliet (and its three orchestral suites), the First and Fifth Symphonies, the Third Piano Concerto, the Second Violin Concerto, the "War Sonatas" for piano, the suite of music from the film Lieutenant Kijé, and, of course, Peter and the Wolf.
  • Happy ending: The original version of Romeo and Juliet was recently discovered by musicologist Simon Morrison and given its premiere, to choreography by Mark Morris. In this version, the lovers are reunited and do not die. The score is about 15 minutes longer than the revised version and seems unlikely to supplant the beloved, revised score which was given its first performance in 1940.

Recommended Websites

  • Wikipedia article on Prokofiev
  • The Prokofiev Page: Excellent site for general music lovers, with pictures, links, an interview with one of Prokofiev's biographers, a works list, and more.
  • The Serge Prokofiev Foundation including the open archive at Goldsmiths College, London.
  • Prokofieff 2003: Boosey and Hawkes, English publishers of Prokofiev's works created this tribute page with lots of info, a biography and, of course, links to their catalogue.
  • Prokofiev as Pianist: List of Prokofiev's recordings and short discussion of them. The electrical recordings for HMV have been reissued by Pearl Recordings.
Selections From Romeo And Juliet look inside Selections From Romeo And Juliet (10 Pieces For Piano Opus 75). By Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). For solo piano. Piano Large Works. 20th Century. SMP Level 7 (Late Intermediate). Collection. Standard notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). Opus 75. 48 pages. Sikorski #SIK2121. Published by Sikorski (HL.50160590)

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Music For Children, Op. 65 look inside Music For Children, Op. 65 (12 Easy Pieces for the Piano). By Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). For solo piano. Piano Collection. 20th Century. SMP Level 7 (Late Intermediate). Collection. 28 pages. G. Schirmer #LB1772. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.50261590)

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