Sergei Prokofieff
(1891-1953)

Sergei Prokofieff was a Soviet composer, pianist, and conductor, highly regarded both in his lifetime and beyond. As the most prolific Russian composer of the twentieth century, he wrote seven completed operas, seven symphonies, eight ballets, eight concerti, and nine completed piano sonatas, amongst other works.

Prokofieff was born in 1891 in rural Sontsovka. He began studying piano with his mother early on and at age five, wrote his first piece, Indian Galop, which she transcribed for him. By age nine, he wrote his first opera, The Giant.

As a teenager, Prokofieff began taking private music lessons and enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It was there he had the chance to study with Rimsky-Korsakov, but did not take full advantage of the opportunity, which he would regret later in his life. He was awarded the Anton Rubinstein Prize at the time of graduation for being the best student pianist, winning with a performance of his own D-flat piano concerto. Part of his success was the introduction and inclusion of variety, humor, and strange harmonies in his compositions.

With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Prokofieff embarked on a world tour, in part to avoid the violence and insecurity in his homeland. Initially, he toured and became famous as a concert pianist. He lived in London, then travelled to Japan and eventually America. Disappointment came when audiences did not accept the neo-classical style of his writings so he relocated to Paris in 1920, where people enjoyed his operas and ballets and he was well-regarded by the public.

While in Paris, Prokofieff was commissioned to write a ballet for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, however, Prokofieff’s inexperience with writing for this medium led to extensive revision and much critique. When Chout finally premiered in Paris in 1921, it was a huge success, met with admiration and praise from an audience that included contemporaries Ravel and Stravinsky. Following the success of the ballet, Prokofieff resumed working on other unfinished pieces and composition projects and moved with his mother to the town of Ettal in the Bavarian Alps. Though he was gaining popularity in Russia, he was determined to stay in Europe and refused several performance invitations.

Four years later, Prokofieff finally made his first concert tour in the Soviet Union. For several months, he spent time in Moscow and Leningrad, where he enjoyed a very successful staging of The Love for Three Oranges in the Mariinsky Theatre. In 1928, he completed his Symphony No. 3, which was broadly based upon his unperformed opera The Fiery Angel. Prokofieff then began to turn against expressionist style and, having been introduced to the teachings of Christian Science, sought to develop a “new simplicity”, which he believed was more sincere than the complexities and nuances of the modern music prevalent at the time.

Prokofieff suffered a hand injury while involved in a serious car accident in 1929 and as a result, he was no longer able to perform on his tour. In 1932, he returned to Russia, where he would remain the rest of his life. During this time, some of his most popular works were composed, including Peter and the Wolf and the ballet Romeo and Juliet. It was also during this period that his work began to be criticized as anti-melodic and unpleasant. When he tried to include more lyricism in his next compositions and reduce the use of unmelodious harmonies, he was further criticized for his formalism and experienced oppression like other artists of the time. Despite the disdain for his works, he was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1952 for his Symphony No. 7.

In 1941, Prokofieff suffered from several heart attacks, after which he fell ill with a gradual decline in his health that he never would recover from. He died on March 5, 1953, however because he lived near Red Square and Joseph Stalin passed away on the same day, his body could not be moved for three days because of the crowds, so he was later buried in Moscow. Prokofieff is regarded as one of the major composers of twentieth-century Russia, applauded for blending a modern sense of harmony with structures of the classic era, beautiful melodies, sparkling orchestral textures, and a wide range of compositional mediums.

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