Sergey (Sergeyevich) Prokofiev


Rightly regarded as one of the leading composers of the 20th century, Prokofiev was the only Russian composer to return to the Soviet Union having left at the time of the revolution. His musical style which initially embraced Russian Romantic traditions before encountering modernism, settled into an innate neo-classicist simplicity that was more or less in synthesis with the musical policy of the Soviet regime at the time. In later years, however, Prokofiev suffered alongside other Soviet artists at the hands of Stalin's cultural policy.

Born in April 1891, Prokofiev enjoyed a privileged upbringing as a pampered only child. His father was an agronomist and managed the estate of Sontsovka in the Yekaterinoslav district of Ukraine. Taught the piano by his mother from the age of four, Prokofiev soon began to compose and by the age of ten had written an opera.

With the encouragement of Glazunov, Prokofiev entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in autumn 1904, studying theory with Lyadov and, later, Vitols. His works began to be performed at the Evenings of Contemporary Music in 1908 and were also heard in Moscow, establishing him as an important innovator. Although his formal tuition at the conservatory had little impact on the path of his composition, he formed an important lifelong friendship with Miaskovsky.

After graduating in composition in 1909, Prokofiev turned his attention to the piano and conducting, studying with Anna Yesipova and Tcherepnin respectively. In 1913 he made trips to France and Switzerland and, in 1914, to England, where he heard Ravel's Daphnis et Chole and Stravinsky's ballets, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. He was sceptical about the latter but it inspired him to compose his Scythian Suite.

The first leanings towards neo-classicism can be found in the Classical Symphony of 1916-7, composed just before Prokofiev's decision to leave his homeland for the US in 1918. He spent four years in America and, having misjudged the conservative tastes of the public, regarded them as a failure; he was in direct competition with the established Rachmaninov and came off second best. Yet his best known opera, The Love for Three Oranges, dates from these years.

His thoughts turning back to Europe where he continued to tour successfully, Prokofiev moved to Southern Germany in 1922 and, after marrying Spanish singer Lina Llubera on 1 October 1923, moved to Paris. With the lukewarm reception of his dissonant Second Symphony, Prokofiev began to abandon complex chromatic harmony and embrace a new simplicity, as can be heard in the 2nd Violin Concerto of 1935.

Throughout his time in France, Prokofiev remained in close contact with the Soviet Union, registering as a citizen in 1924. He made tours there in the late 20s and early 30s and his works were regularly performed there. Perhaps it was only with Shostakovich's fall from grace in 1935 that Prokofiev felt able to return to his homeland, confident of a pre-eminent position in Soviet musical life.

Prokofiev moved with his family to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1936, having already obtained a commission for a ballet, Romeo and Juliet, from the Bol'shoy ballet. For a while, he was allowed to retain his passport and could travel freely, but eventually the trap shut and further foreign tours became impossible.

Prokofiev's early works in the USSR featured patriotic cantatas, works for children, and a return to opera. The only work to gain exposure in the West, however, was the cantata based on his film score to the Eistenstein film, Alexander Nevsky.

When the German invasion of the USSR brought the Soviets into the war, the popularity in the West of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony also increased the interest in Prokofiev's music. Particularly popular was his film music to Lieutenant Kijé and Alexander Nevsky, his 5th Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, and Peter and the Wolf.
During the Second World War, Prokofiev's activities were devoted to propaganda music such as the Op. 99 March, and chamber music. With works such as the Flute Sonata Op. 94, he further refined the lyrically expressive character of his mature style.

Indeed, Prokofiev retained a degree of creative freedom until 1948 when a clampdown in cultural policy paralysed musical life. Prokofiev was named as a cultural renegade and his music banned. He made numerous attempts to accuse himself of artistic errors and genuinely attempted to reform his style in line with the party aesthetic, but could never find a compromise.

He was further shocked to learn that his first wife, whom he had left in 1941, had been arrested for spying. With his works seldom performed or published, he became financially reliant on the state which granted him a pension in 1952. Having suffered a number of heart attacks and with his health in a poor state, he finally died on 5 March 1953. Even then his death went largely unnoticed, eclipsed by the death of Josef Stalin on the same day.

Related Composers: Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Stravinsky,  Walton, Shostakovich

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