Sergei Prokofiev

(15 April 1891 - 5 March 1953)

Prokofiev is one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century, acknowledged for his originality in works across various genres and in several styles, from the Russian Romantic style to innovatively dissonant works that caused a stir in the public forum. His music is unique in its use of original diatonic melodies. He lived in Western Europe and the United States for many years, before returning to Russia in the 30s.

Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, in present day Donetsk, Ukraine. His father was originally from Moscow. Prokofiev received piano and composition lessons and at the age of 11, made his first attempt at a symphony. During a trip to St. Petersburg, Prokofiev and his mother met Glazunov, who was so impressed with Prokofiev that he insisted that he enrol at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Several years younger than most of his classmates, he was seen as arrogant, eccentric and with an inflated sense of entitlement. Prokofiev grew a reputation as a musical rebel.

Through his former teacher, Chernov, Prokofiev met the critics Vyacheslav Karatïgin and Walter Nuvel, who were the organisers of the Evenings of Contemporary Music, and the latter of whom knew Diaghilev. It was at these concerts that Prokofiev made his début as a composer in late 1908. He also performed works by other composers at these evenings. His Second Piano Concerto caused a scandal at its premiere on the 23rd of August 1913 with the audience leaving in shock at the ‘futuristic’ mayhem, but the modernists were very pleased and many well-known critics viewed it favourably.

He wrote Scythian Suite op. 20, an orchestral work compiled from music originally commissioned by Diaghilev for Ballet Russes, which was directly inspired by the Rite of Spring, first performed at the beginning of 1916 with Prokofiev conducting and attracted as much attention as his Second Piano Concerto. In the period leading up to his emigration to the United States, he wrote the Sarcasms, op. 17, five piano pieces which were also viewed very favourably.

In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve Man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it.

Prokofiev used classical ideals in his Classical Symphony op. 25, which he completed in 1917. Stravinsky’s neo-classical Pulcinella was not composed until two years later. The Classical Symphony contains old models from the classical era such as sonata form and use of Alberti bass.

After the revolution, Prokofiev left for the USA because he felt that civil war would give him less space for creativity so he decided to leave in the spring of 1918 via Petrograd, where he gave concerts, through Siberia and on to Tokyo, finally arriving in New York in September 1918. He described his life abroad as a failure due to cultural differences and nothing was as successful as he had hoped.

He was commissioned by the Jewish ensemble Simro to write the Overture on Jewish Themes for clarinet, string quartet and piano, op. 34, which had its premiere in New York in 1920 with Prokofiev himself at the piano.

In Chicago, he was commissioned to write The Love for Three Oranges op.33 by Campanini, the conductor of the Chicago Opera. The première was postponed because Campanini died. It was postponed further when Prokofiev demanded compensation money for such long delays. The premiere finally took place on December 30 1921, and was Prokofiev's most famous and successful opera. It was an anti-bourgeois, anti-illusionist drama and dispenses the psychological study of the characters.

In 1927, Prokofiev made his first concert tour to the Soviet Union and in the summer of 1936 Prokofiev and his wife and two sons moved there and settled permanently in Moscow. During these years, Shostakovich was the leading and most international Soviet composer. These years saw plentiful successes for Prokofiev such as Lieutenant Kijé and Peter and the Wolf.

He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art might consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future.

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Prokofiev turned to genres favoured by Soviet cultural policy, such as his Russian Overture op. 72. In 1939, for Stalin’s 60th birthday, Prokofiev wrote the cantata Zdravitsa (‘Hail to Stalin’, op. 85) a work full of folksongs from various parts of the Soviet Union.

The only non-political works by Prokofiev from this period are his Cello Concerto and Romeo and Juliet, the former of which was premièred in 1950 by Mstislav Rostropovich. Prokofiev also revised his concerto for Rostropovich, transforming it into a Symphony-Concerto.

On a more sombre note, it was an unfortunate crossing of timelines that saw one of the most celebrated Russians composers off. “What a terrible coincidence that Papa died the very same day as Stalin” wrote young Svyatislav Prokofiev to his mother in 1953. As famous and highly regarded a composer as Sergei Prokofiev was in his lifetime, his death went unnoticed due to this unlucky turn of events. On the day of Prokofiev’s funeral, they found it near-impossible to carry the composer’s body from his home to the Soviet Composers’ Union because the streets were packed with Stalin mourners – gathering to communicate genuine and false grief together. His death did get a brief mention though, albeit a few days late and on page 116 of the daily newspaper. The first 115 pages were taken up with Stalin tributes. The saddest thing was that his Spanish wife and the mother of his children was in prison, in the Gulag system of Soviet forced labour camps at the time.

My chief virtue (or if you like, defect) has been a tireless lifelong search for an original, individual musical idiom.

Dmitri Shostakovich

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