Sergei Prokofiev


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(b. April 23 [April 11, old style], 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine, Russian Empire--d. March 5, 1953, Moscow), 20th-century Russian (and Soviet) composer who wrote in a wide range of musical genres, including symphonies, concerti, film music, operas, ballets, and program pieces.

Pre-Revolutionary period.

Prokofiev (Prokofjev in the transliteration system of the Akademiya Nauk) was born into a family of agriculturalists. Village life, with its peasant songs, left a permanent imprint on him. His mother, a good pianist, became the highly gifted child's first mentor in music and arranged trips to the opera in Moscow. A high evaluation was put upon the boy's talent by a Moscow composer and teacher, Sergey Taneyev, on whose recommendation the Russian composer Reinhold Glier twice went to Sontsovka in the summer months to become young Sergey's first teacher in theory and composition and to prepare him for entrance into the conservatory at St. Petersburg. The years Prokofiev spent there--1904 to 1914--were a period of swift creative growth. His teachers were struck by the originality of his musical thinking. When he graduated he was awarded the Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano for a brilliant performance of his own first large-scale work--the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Flat Major, Opus 10.

The conservatory gave Prokofiev a firm foundation in the academic fundamentals of music, but he avidly sought musical innovation. His enthusiasms were supported by progressive circles advocating musical renewal. Prokofiev's first public appearance as a pianist took place before such a group in St. Petersburg in 1908. A little later he met with friendly sympathy in a similar circle in Moscow, which helped him make his first appearances as a composer, at the Moscow summer symphony seasons of 1911 and 1912.

Prokofiev's talent developed rapidly as he applied many new musical ideas. He studied the compositions of Igor Stravinsky, particularly the early ballets, but maintained a critical attitude toward his countryman's brilliant innovations. Contacts with the then new currents in theatre, poetry, and painting also played an important role in Prokofiev's development. He was attracted by the work of modernist Russian poets; by the painting of the Russian followers of Cézanne and Picasso; and by the theatrical ideas of Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose experimental productions were directed against an obsolescent naturalism. In 1914 Prokofiev became acquainted with the great ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev, who became one of his most influential advisers for the next decade and a half.

After the death of his father in 1910, Prokofiev lived under more straitened material conditions, though his mother provided for his continuing studies. On the eve of World War I, he visited London and Paris to acquaint himself with the newest in art. The tense pre-storm atmosphere that pervaded Russia sharpened in him a feeling of skepticism, of disbelief in romantic ideals, but did not shake his essentially healthy outlook on life. Exempt from war mobilization as the only son of a widow, Prokofiev continued to perfect his musicianship on the organ and appeared in concerts in the capital and elsewhere. The pre-Revolutionary period of Prokofiev's work was marked by intense exploration. The harmonic thought and design of his work grew more and more complicated. Prokofiev wrote the ballet Ala and Lolli (1914), on themes of ancient Slav mythology, for Diaghilev, who rejected it. Thereupon, Prokofiev reworked the music into the Scythian Suite, Opus 20, for orchestra. Its premiere in 1916 caused a scandal but was the culmination of his career in Petrograd. The ballet The Tale of the Buffoon Who Outjested Seven Buffoons (1915; The Buffoon, 1915-20), also commissioned by Diaghilev, was based on a folktale; it served as a stimulus for Prokofiev's searching experiments in the renewal of Russian music. Despite Diaghilev's assertion of the priority of ballet over opera, which he considered a dying genre, Prokofiev was active in the field of opera. Following the immature Maddalena, which he wrote in 1911-13, he composed in 1915-16 The Gambler, a brilliant and dynamic adaptation of the story by Dostoyevsky. Continuing the operatic tradition of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev skillfully combined subtle lyricism, satiric malice, narrative precision, and dramatic impact. During this period, Prokofiev achieved great recognition for his first two piano concerti--the first the one-movement Concerto in D Flat Major (1911), and the second the dramatic four-movement Concerto in G Minor (1913).

The year 1917--the year of two Russian revolutions--was astonishingly productive for Prokofiev. When the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917 he was in the streets of Petrograd, expressing the joy of victory. As if inspired by feelings of social renewal, he wrote within one year an immense quantity of new music: two sonatas, the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, the Classical Symphony, and the choral work Seven, They Are Seven; he began the magnificent Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Opus 26; and he planned a new opera--The Love for Three Oranges, after a comedy tale by the Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi. In the summer of 1917 Prokofiev was included in the Council of Workers in the Arts, which led Russia's left wing of artistic activity; but for almost nine months he was stranded in the Caucasus, cut off from Petrograd by the civil war. Only in the spring of 1918 did he succeed in returning there. In the difficult circumstances of these years, however, he concluded that music had no place and decided to leave Russia temporarily to undertake a concert tour abroad. Prokofiev travelled, with official sanction, over the difficult route through Siberia, where civil strife was raging.

Foreign period.

The next decade and a half are commonly called the foreign period of Prokofiev's work. For a number of reasons, chiefly the continued blockade of the Soviet Union, he could not return at once to his homeland. Nevertheless, he did not lose touch with Russia. The first five years of Prokofiev's life abroad are usually characterized as the "years of wandering." On the way from Vladivostok to San Francisco, in the summer of 1918, he gave several concerts in Tokyo and Yokohama. In New York City the sensational piano recitals of the "Bolshevik Pianist" evoked both delight and denunciation. The composer had entrée to the Chicago Opera Association, where he was given a commission for a comic opera. The conductor and the producer of the opera, both Italian, gladly backed the idea of an opera on the Gozzi plot. Accordingly, The Love for Three Oranges was completed in 1919, though it was not produced until 1921. Within a few years the opera was also produced with immense success on the stages of the Soviet Union as well as in western Europe.

In America, Prokofiev met a young singer of Spanish extraction, Lina Llubera, who eventually became his first wife and the mother of two of his sons, Svyatoslav and Oleg. Not meeting with continuing support in the United States, the composer set out in the spring of 1920 for Paris for meetings with Diaghilev and the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. They soon secured for him wide recognition in the most important western European musical centres. The production of The Buffoon by Diaghilev's ballet troupe in Paris and London in 1921 and the Paris premiere of the Scythian Suite in 1921 and that of Seven, They Are Seven in 1924 evoked enormous interest, consolidating his reputation as a brilliant innovator. The successful performance of the Third Piano Concerto (1921), completed in France, also marked one of the peaks of Prokofiev's dynamic national style.

Prokofiev spent more than a year and a half in 1922-23 in southern Germany, in the town of Ettal in the Bavarian Alps. Resting after fatiguing premieres and reviewing the course of his creative path, he also prepared many of his compositions for the printer. The attention of the composer at this period turned to the basic conception of the opera The Flaming Angel, after a story by the contemporary Russian author Valery Bryusov. The opera, which required many years of work (1919-27), did not find a producer within Prokofiev's lifetime.

Meanwhile, Prokofiev, finding himself not interested in the musical activity in Germany, settled in Paris in the autumn of 1923. There he was in close touch with progressive French musical figures, such as the composers Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger, while continuing his own intensive creative activity. Vexed by criticisms of his melodically lucid First Violin Concerto, which had its premiere in Paris in 1923, he addressed himself to a search for a more avant-garde style. These tendencies appeared in such compositions of the early 1920s as the epic Symphony No. 2 in D Minor, commissioned by Koussevitzky. Its intense dramatic quality and its striking sense of proportion are also found in the Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (1928), based on thematic material from the opera The Flaming Angel, reworked by the composer. In close collaboration with Diaghilev, Prokofiev created new one-act ballets, Le Pas d'acier (performed in 1927) and The Prodigal Son (performed in 1929). Le Pas d'acier had a sensational success in Paris and London, thanks to its original staging and bold evocation of images of Soviet Russia at the beginning of the 1920s--with its economic disolcation and the beginnings of industrialization. The Prodigal Son had a lofty biblical theme and music that was exquisitely lyrical. It reflects a striving toward emotional relaxation and toward clarification of style that are also seen in the String Quartet No. 1 in B Minor, Opus 50, in the Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Opus 56 (1932), and in the ballet On the Dnieper.

In 1927 Prokofiev toured the Soviet Union and was rapturously received by the Soviet public as a world-renowned Russian musician-revolutionary. While there, he strengthened his old associations with the innovative theatrical producer Vsevolod Meyerhold, who helped him in a basic revision of the opera The Gambler, produced in 1929 in Brussels.

During the 1920s and early '30s, Prokofiev toured with immense success as a pianist in the great musical centres of western Europe and the United States. His U.S. tours in 1925, 1930, and 1933 were attended with tumultuous success and brought him new commissions, such as the Symphony No. 4 in C Major (1930), incorporating musical material of The Prodigal Son, for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony, and the First String Quartet, commissioned for the Library of Congress. His new piano concerti--No. 4 (1931), for the left hand, and No. 5 in G Major (1932)--demonstrated anew his bent for impulsiveness and virtuoso brilliance.

Soviet period.

Although he enjoyed material well-being, success with the public, and contact with outstanding figures of Western culture, Prokofiev increasingly missed his homeland. Visits to the Soviet Union in 1927, 1929, and 1932 led him to the decision to conclude his foreign obligations and return to Moscow once and for all. From 1933 to 1935 the composer gradually accustomed himself to the new conditions and became one of the leading figures of Soviet culture. In the two decades constituting the Soviet period of Prokofiev's work--1933 to 1953--the realistic and epical traits of his art became more clearly defined. The synthesis of traditional tonal and melodic means with the stylistic innovations of 20th-century music was more fully worked out.

In the years preceding World War II, Prokofiev created a number of classical masterpieces. These included his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor (1935), the ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935-36), and the music for Sergey Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky (1938). His work in theatre and the cinema gave rise to a number of charming programmatic suites, such as the Lieutenant Kije suite (1934), the Egyptian Nights suite (1934), and the symphonic children's tale Peter and the Wolf (1936). Turning to opera, he cast in the form of a contemporary drama of folk life his Semyon Kotko, depicting events of the civil war in the Ukraine (1939). The basis of the brilliantly modernized opéra bouffe Betrothal in a Monastery (composed in 1940, produced in 1946) was the play The Duenna, by the 18th-century British dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Testing his powers in other genres, he composed the monumental Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution (1937), on texts by V.I. Lenin, and the epic cantata The Toast (1939).

On his last trip abroad, Prokofiev visited Hollywood, where he studied the technical problems of the sound film; the experience thus gained he applied brilliantly in the striking national music for Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky, depicting the heroic Russian struggle against the Teutonic Knights of the 13th century. The cantata Alexander Nevsky was based on the music of the film. One of the summits of Prokofiev's art was the production of his ballet Romeo and Juliet in Leningrad, with Galina Ulanova in the leading role. Throughout the 1930s Prokofiev took part in the organizational work of the Composers' Union, made appearances as conductor and as pianist, and traveled much throughout the country.

On the eve of World War II, a change occurred in his personal life: leaving his first family, he linked his destiny with that of the poet Mira Mendelssohn, who became his second wife. The war sharpened Prokofiev's national and patriotic feelings. Regardless of the difficulties of the war years, he composed with remarkable assiduity, even when the evacuation of Moscow in 1941 made it necessary for him and his wife to move from one place to another until they were able to return in 1944.

From the first days of the war, the composer's attention was centred on a very large-scale operatic project: an opera based on Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace. He was fascinated by the parallels between 1812, when Russia crushed Napoleon's invasion, and the then-current situation. The first version of the opera was completed by the summer of 1942, but subsequently the work was fundamentally revised, a task that occupied more than 10 years of intensive work. Those who heard it were struck both by the immense scale of the opera (13 scenes, more than 60 characters) and by its unique blend of epic narrative with lyrical scenes depicting the personal destinies of the major characters. An increasing predilection for national-epical imagery is manifested in the heroic majesty of the Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major (1944) and in the music (composed 1942-45) for Eisenstein's two-part film Ivan the Terrible (Part I, 1944; Part II, 1948). Living in the Caucasus, in central Asia, and in the Urals, the composer was everywhere interested in the folklore, an interest that was reflected in the String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, on Kabardinian and Balkarian themes (1941), and in the comic opera Khan Buzai, on themes of Kazakh folktales. Documents of those troubled days are three piano sonatas, No. 6 (1940), No. 7 (1942), and No. 8 (1944), which are striking in the dramatic conflict of their images and in their irrepressible dynamism.

Overwork was fatal to the composer's health. During the last years of his life, Prokofiev seldom left his villa in a suburb of Moscow. His propensity for innovation, however, is still evident in such important works as the Symphony No. 6 in E Flat Minor (1945-47), which is laden with reminiscence of the tragedies of the war just past; the Sinfonia Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E Minor (1950-52), composed with consultation from the conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; and the Violin Sonata in F Minor (1938-46), dedicated to the violinist David Oistrakh, which is in Russian folk imagery. Just as in earlier years, the composer devoted the greatest part of his energy to musical theatre: cases in point were the opera The Story of a Real Man (1947-48), the ballet The Stone Flower (1948-50), and the oratorio On Guard for Peace (1950). The lyrical Symphony No. 7 in C Sharp Minor (1951-52) was the composer's swan song.

In 1953 Prokofiev died suddenly of cerebral hemorrhage. On his worktable there remained a pile of unfinished compositions, including sketches for a 6th concerto for two pianos, a 10th and an 11th piano sonata, a Kazakh comic opera, and a solo violoncello sonata. The subsequent years saw a rapid growth of his popularity in the Soviet Union and abroad. In 1957 he was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union's highest honour, the Lenin Prize, for the Seventh Symphony. (I.V.N./Ed.)

I.V. Nestev, Prokofiev (1960, reprinted 1971), is the first serious, systematic study of the man and his music. Lawrence Hanson and Elisabeth Hanson, Prokofiev (1964); Victor Seroff, Sergei Prokofiev: A Soviet Tragedy (1968, reissued 1979); and Miriam John, Prokofiev (1971), concentrate more on his life than his music.

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