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The East Slavic Composer, Sergei Prokofiev's Works and Life

Sergei Prokofiev: Overview

  • Born: 1891 - Sontsovka, Ukraine
  • Died: 1953 - Moscow, Russia
  • Historical Period: The 20th Century 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, opera, ballet 

Composer, Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born on the 23rd of April 1891 in the then Russian Empire. He was quite prolific with his large body of work that included concerti, operas, ballets, symphonies, film music and much more! Hailed as one of the most gifted composers of the 20th century, if not the finest, Prokofiev passed away in 1953, while in Russia. His life was a testament to both great fame and terrible struggle, both of which he bore, despite churning out great musical pieces. 

Sergei Prokofiev: The Man Who Salvaged Modern Russian Music

Starting his piano study at the tender age of three from his mother, Prokofiev’s talents manifested early on when he wrote an opera at the age of nine. This was followed by a dedicated education under master composer Reinhold Glière. After completing the education, he was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatoire in the year 1904. The soon-to-be virtuoso went on to learn counterpoint and harmony under Anatoli Liadov, the piano under A. Winkler and orchestration under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Even as a student, Prokofiev was highly regarded as both a composer and performer and numerous of his creations have since taken up positions as some of the finest in musical history. These included his very first sonatas for the piano, Op.1 (1909) and Op.14 (1912) and not to forget his debut Piano Concerto in D flat major Op.10 (1911-12). His first public performance was in 1908 when he performed as a pianist at “Evenings of Contemporary Music,” a concert series in St. Petersburg. 

Prokofiev was entirely unappreciative of the works of earlier Russian greats such as Mussorgsky, and his immense attraction to new-age music for the time made him both appreciate and imbibe the styles of the likes of Scriabin and Reger. What he derived from such influences and outlooks was a whole new style of composition that drew both love and shock from audiences. In 1914, after about a decade at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, the composer journeyed to the west to learn more about the Ballet Russes and Stravinsky. His goal was to improve his style further to reach the pinnacle of musical greatness that he envisioned for himself. 

Traveling to Paris and London, Prokofiev came across Sergei Diaghilev. The latter was unsupportive of the newcomer’s compositional views from the very beginning, but he eventually agreed to commission Ala i Lolly (1915) for the Ballets Russes. The first World War broke out and disrupted this, but today, the music survives as the famous Scythian Suite Op.20. In 1918, Prokofiev wrote and produced his Symphony No. 1 in D major or the Classical Symphony, that premiered in St Petersburg.

When Czar Nicholas II was assassinated in the final days of World War I, the composer went back to Petrograd in 1918. That same year, Prokofiev moved to New York, and there he experienced an acute hatred from listeners for what he wrote, with his compositions actively demeaned and rejected. Despite this, Prokofiev settled down in America, and the Chicago Opera agreed to stage The Love for Three Oranges (1919).

The year 1920 saw Prokofiev travel to Paris, where he met Diaghilev again and wrote three ballets, The Buffoon Op.21 (1915 - 1921), The Age of Steel Op.41 (1926) and The Prodigal Son Op.46 (1929). This was a start of a new era for him as he subsequently had a number of his pieces performed by Sergei Koussevitzky, a famous Russian conductor. 

In between, in the year 1923, Prokofiev married Lina Codina, a Spanish singer and this marriage produced two sons. The couple separated in 1941, and later Prokofiev married librettist Mira Mendelson. This union lasted until the composer’s death.

Prokofiev had experienced the best of both worlds – his national identity as a reputable artistic individual and a western exposure to unorthodox and more refreshing musical techniques. Despite such incredible success and acclaim, Prokofiev never could settle down permanently in the west. He felt like an outcast in foreign lands, especially with his distinctive compositional ways and finally, in 1933, he went back home to Russia. 

In 1939, the Soviet Union declared the rapprochement with Germany, thus severing ties with other Western powers. This ended Prokofiev’s role as an ambassador of Russian music to other countries and then, in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin had senior cultural leaders moved out of Moscow, which included the composer. In all these years of turmoil, since he returned to Russia, Prokofiev penned down three ballets, Romeo and Juliet Op.64 (1936), Cinderella Op. 87 (1944) and The Stone Flower Op.118 (1953).

The harshest conditions of wartime did not deter the master, and in the 1940s, he wrote his Piano Sonatas No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8, and this was followed by Fifth Symphony (1944) and Cinderella (1945). War and Peace (1952), an opera, was reminiscent of Tolstoy’s novel. 

The Soviet government banned Prokofiev's works in 1948, as he was considered an affront to Soviet ideals. Prokofiev’s then ex-wife, Lina, was also convicted of espionage and incarcerated for eight long years. Since being branded as too much of a formalist, Prokofiev’s pieces became few and far between with his final work being Symphony No. 7 (1952).

Some of his other notable works are at least five concertos for cello, piano, and violin, chamber music, sonatas, film music, and even choral creations. His film contributions include the music for “Alexander Nevsky” (1938).

The great and masterful composer passed away in 1953, but his demise was considered a loss of one of the most exceptional influences of the 20th century by admirers and intellectuals far and wide.



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