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Sergey Prokofiev: the 100 most inspiring musicians of all time
(b. April 23 [April 11, Old Style], 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine, Russian
Empire—d. March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.)
Twentieth-century Russian (and Soviet) composer Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev wrote in a wide range of musical genres, including symphonies, concerti, film music, operas, ballets, and program pieces.
Prokofiev 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 child’s first mentor in music and arranged trips to the opera in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Russian composer Reinhold Glière twice went to Sontsovka in the summer months to train and prepare young Sergey for entrance into the conservatory at St. Petersburg. Prokofiev’s years at the conservatory— 1904 to 1914—were a period of swift creative growth, and
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.
Contacts with the then new currents in theatre, poetry, and painting played an important role in Prokofiev’s development. He was attracted by the work of modernist Russian poets; by the paintings of the Russian followers of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso; and by the theatrical ideas of Vsevolod Meyerhold. In 1914 Prokofiev became acquainted with the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, who became one of his most influential advisers for the next decade and a half.
The prerevolutionary 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 for orchestra. Its premiere, in 1916, caused a scandal but was the culmination of his career in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The ballet The Tale of the Buffoon Who Outjested Seven Buffoons (1915; reworked as 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. Prokofiev also was active in the field of opera. In 1915–16 he composed The Gambler, a brilliant adaptation of the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Continuing the operatic tradition of Modest
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—during which there were two Russian revolutions—was astonishingly productive for Prokofiev. As if inspired by feelings of social and national renewal, he wrote within one year an immense quantity of new music: he composed 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; and he planned a new opera, The Love for Three Oranges, after a comedy tale by the 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, as translated and adapted
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. He later concluded that music had no place in the council’s activities and decided to leave Russia temporarily to undertake a concert tour abroad.
The next decade and a half are commonly called the foreign period of Prokofiev’s work. For a number of reasons, hiefly the continued blockade of the Soviet Union, he could not return at once to his homeland. The first five years of Prokofiev’s life abroad are usually characterized as the “years of wandering.” In the summer of 1918, he gave several concerts in Japan, and in the United States his piano recitals in New York City evoked both delight and denunciation. In Chicago he was given a commission for a
comic opera; The Love for Three Oranges was completed in 1919, though it was not produced until 1921.
In America, Prokofiev met a young singer of Spanish descent. Born Carlina Codina in Madrid and raised in New York, Lina Llubera eventually became his wife and the mother of two of his sons, Svyatoslav and Oleg. Not finding 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 centers. 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 consolidated his reputation as a brilliant innovator. The successful performance of his Piano Concerto No. 3 (1921) also marked one of the peaks of Prokofiev’s dynamic national style.
During 1922–23 Prokofiev spent more than a year and a half in southern Germany, in the Bavarian town of Ettal. There he prepared many of his compositions for the printer and also continued work on 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.
In the autumn of 1923, Prokofiev settled in Paris, where he was in close touch with progressive French musical figures, such as the composers Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger. Vexed by criticisms of his melodically lucid Violin Concerto No. 1, which had its premiere in Paris in
1923, he addressed himself to a search for a more avant-garde style. These tendencies appeared in several compositions of the early 1920s, including the epic Symphony No. 2 in D Minor and the Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (1928). 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, with its bold evocation of images of Soviet Russia at the beginning of the 1920s. The Prodigal Son had a lofty biblical theme and music that was exquisitely lyrical. It reflects an emotional relaxation and
a clarification of style that are also seen in the String Quartet No. 1 in B Minor (1930), in the Sonata for Two Violins in C Major (1932), and in the ballet On the Dnieper (1932).
In 1927 Prokofiev toured the Soviet Union and was rapturously received by the Soviet public as a worldrenowned Russian musician-revolutionary. During the 1920s and the early ’30s, Prokofiev also toured with immense success as a pianist in the great musical centres of western Europe and the United States. His U.S. tours were attended with tumultuous success and brought him new commissions, such as the Symphony No. 4 in C Major
(1930), for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony, and the String Quartet No. 1, commissioned by 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 virtuoso brilliance.
Although he enjoyed many aspects of life in the West, Prokofiev increasingly missed his homeland. Visits to the Soviet Union in 1927, 1929, and 1932 led him to return to Moscow permanently. From 1933 to 1935 the composer became a leading figure of Soviet culture. In the two
decades constituting the Soviet period of Prokofiev’s work—1933 to 1953—the realistic and epic 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 realized.
In the years preceding World War II, Prokofiev created a number of classical masterpieces, including his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor (1935) and the ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935–36). His work in theatre and the cinema gave rise to a number of 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 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 Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and Joseph Stalin, and the cantata The Toast (1939), composed for Stalin’s 60th birthday.
On his last trip abroad, in 1938, Prokofiev visited Hollywood, where he studied the technical problems of the sound film; he applied what he learned to the music for Sergey Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, depicting the 13th-century heroic Russian struggle against the Teutonic Knights. The cantata Alexander Nevsky was based on the music of the film.
On the eve of World War II, he left his wife and sons for poet Mira Mendelssohn, who became his second (common-law) wife. Regardless of the difficulties of the war years, he composed with remarkable assiduity, even when the evacuation of Moscow in 1941 prevented him from returning to the city until 1944. From the first days of the war, his 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. Those who heard the work were struck both by its immensity of scale (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. His 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 folklore, an interest that was reflected in the String Quartet No. 2 in F Major (1941), and in the projected comic opera Khan Buzai (never completed), on themes of Kazakh folktales.
Overwork was fatal to the composer’s health, as was the stress he suffered in 1948, when he was censured by the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party for “formalism.” 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 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 laden with Russian folk imagery. Just as in earlier years, the composer devoted the greatest part of his energy to musical theatre, as in 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. 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 his Symphony No. 7.
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