Prokofiev, Sergei (Sergeievich)

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Prokofiev, Sergei (Sergeievich)

Prokofiev, Sergei (Sergeievich) , great Russian composer of modern times, creator of new and original formulas of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic combinations that became the recognized style of his music; b. Sontsovka, near Ekaterinoslav, April 27, 1891; d. Moscow, March 5, 1953. His mother was born a serf in 1859, 2 years before the emanicipation of Russian serfdom, and she assumed (as was the custom) the name of the estate where she was born, Sontsov. Prokofiev was born on that estate on April 27, 1891, although he himself erroneously believed that the date was April 23; the correct date was established with the discovery of his birth certificate. He received his first piano lessons from his mother, who was an amateur pianist; he improvised several pieces, and then composed a children’s opera, The Giant (1900), which was performed in a domestic version. Following his bent for the theater, he put together 2 other operas, On Desert Islands (1902) and Ondine (1904–07); fantastic subjects obviously possessed his childish imagination. He was 11 years old when he met the great Russian master, Taneyev, who arranged for him to take systematic private lessons with Glière, who became his tutor at Sontsovka during the summers of 1903 and 1904 and by correspondence during the intervening winter. Under Glière’s knowledgeable guidance in theory and harmony, Prokofiev composed a sym. in piano version and still another opera, Plague, based upon a poem by Pushkin. Finally, in 1904, at the age of 13, he enrolled in the St. Petersburg Cons., where he studied composition with Liadov and piano with Alexander Winkler; later he was accepted by no less a master than Rimsky-Korsakov, who instructed him in orchestration. He also studied conducting with Nikolai Tcherepnin, and form with Wihtol. Further, he entered the piano class of Anna Essipova. During the summers, he returned to Sontsovka or traveled in the Caucasus and continued to compose, already in quite an advanced style; the Moscow publisher Jurgenson accepted his first work, a piano sonata, for publication; it was premiered in Moscow on March 6, 1910. It was then that Prokofiev made his first visit to Paris, London, and Switzerland (1913); in 1914 he graduated from the St. Petersburg Cons., receiving the Anton Rubinstein Prize (a grand piano) as a pianist-composer with his Piano Concerto No. 1, which he performed publicly at the graduation concert. Because of audacious innovations in his piano music (he wrote one piece in which the right and left hands played in different keys), he was described in the press as a “futurist,” and because of his addiction to dissonant and powerful harmonic combinations, some critics dismissed his works as “football music.” This idiom was explicitly demonstrated in his Sarcasms and Visions fugitives, percussive and sharp, yet not lacking in lyric charm. Grotesquerie and irony animated his early works; he also developed a strong attraction toward subjects of primitive character. His important orch. work, the Scythian Suite (arr. from music written for a ballet, Ala and Lolly, 1915), draws upon a legend of ancient Russian sun-worship rituals. While a parallel with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps may be drawn, there is no similarity between the styles of the 2 works. The original performance of the Scythian Suite, scheduled at a Koussevitzky concert in Moscow, was canceled on account of the disruption caused by war, which did not prevent the otherwise intelligent Russian music critic Sabaneyev, blissfully unaware that the announced premiere had been canceled, from delivering a blast of the work as a farrago of atrocious noises. (Sabaneyev was forced to resign his position after this episode.) Another Prokofiev score, primitivistic in its inspiration, was the cantata Seven, They Are Seven, based upon incantations from an old Sumerian religious ritual. During the same period, Prokofiev wrote his famous Classical Symphony (1916–17), in which he adopted with remarkable acuity the formal style of Haydn’s music. While the structure of the work was indeed classical, the sudden modulatory shifts and subtle elements of gro-tesquerie revealed decisively a new modern art.

After conducting the premiere of his Classical Symphony in Petrograd on April 21, 1918, Prokofiev left Russia by way of Siberia and Japan for the U.S. (the continuing war in Europe prevented him from traveling westward). He gave concerts of his music in Japan and later in the U.S., playing his first solo concert in N.Y. on Oct. 29, 1918. Some American critics greeted his appearance as the reflection of the chaotic events of Russia in revolution, and Prokofiev himself was described as a “ribald and Bolshevist innovator and musical agitator.” “Every rule in the realm of traditional music writing was broken by Prokofiev,” one N.Y. writer complained. “Dissonance followed dissonance in a fashion inconceivable to ears accustomed to melody and harmonic laws.” Prokofiev’s genteel Classical Symphony struck some critics as “an orgy of dissonant sound, an exposition of the unhappy state of chaos from which Russia suffers.” One N.Y. critic indulged in the following: “Crashing Siberians, volcano hell, Krakatoa, sea-bottom crawlers. Incomprehensible? So is Prokofiev.” But another critic issued a word of caution, suggesting that “Prokofiev might be the legitimate successor of Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.” The critic was unintentionally right; Prokofiev is firmly enthroned in the pantheon of Russian music.

In 1920 Prokofiev settled in Paris, where he established an association with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which produced his ballets Chout (a French transliteration of the Russian word for buffoon), Le Pas d’acier (descriptive of the industrial development in Soviet Russia), and L’Enfant prodigue. In 1921 Prokofiev again visited the U.S. for the production of the opera commissioned by the Chicago Opera Co., The Love for 3 Oranges. In 1927 he was invited to be the pianist for a series of his own works in Russia. He gave a number of concerts in Russia again in 1929, and eventually decided to remain there. In Russia he wrote some of his most popular works, including the symphonic fairy tale Peter and the Wolf, staged by a children’s theater in Moscow, the historical cantata Alexander Nevsky, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and the opera War and Peace.

Unexpectedly, Prokofiev became the target of the so-called proletarian group of Soviet musicians who accused him of decadence, a major sin in Soviet Russia at the time. His name was included in the official denunciation of modern Soviet composers issued by reactionary Soviet politicians in 1948. He meekly confessed that he had been occasionally interested in atonal and polytonal devices during his stay in Paris, but insisted that he had never abandoned the ideals of classical Russian music. Indeed, when he composed his 7th Sym., he described it specifically as a youth sym., reflecting the energy and ideals of new Russia. There were also significant changes in his personal life. He separated from his Spanish-born wife, the singer Lina Llubera, the mother of his 2 sons, and established a companionship with Myra Mendelson, a member of the Young Communist League. She was a writer and assisted him on the libretto of his War and Peace. He made one final attempt to gain favor with the Soviet establishment by writing an opera based on a heroic exploit of a Soviet pilot during the war against the Nazis. But this, too, was damned by the servile Communist press as lacking in true patriotic spirit, and the opera was quickly removed from the repertory. Prokofiev died of heart failure on March 5, 1953, a few hours before the death of Stalin. Curiously enough, the anniversary of Prokofiev’s death is duly commemorated, while that of his once powerful nemesis is officially allowed to be forgotten. O. Prokofiev tr. and ed. his Soviet Diary, 1927, and OtherWRITINGS (London, 1991).


DRAMATIC: Opera : Maddalena (1912–13, piano score only; orchestrated by Edward Downes, 1978; BBC Radio, March 25, 1979; lst stage pert, Graz, Nov. 28, 1981; U.S. premiere, St. Louis, June 9, 1982); The Gambler, after Dostoyevsky (1915–16; rev. 1927; Brussels, April 29, 1929); The Love for 3 Oranges, after Gozzi (1919; Chicago, Dec. 30, 1921); The Fiery Angel (1919; 2 fragments perf., Paris, June 14, 1928; lst complete concert perf., Paris, Nov. 25, 1954; 1st stage perf., Venice, Sept. 14, 1955); Semyon Kotko (1939; Moscow, June 23, 1940); Betrothal in a Convent, after Sheridan’s Duenna (1940; Leningrad, Nov. 3, 1946); War and Peace, after Tolstoy (1941–52; concert perf. of 8 of the original 11 scenes, Ensemble of Soviet Opera of the All-Union Theatrical Society, Oct. 16, 1944; concert perf. of 8 of the original 11 scenes, En sembl e of S oviet Moscow Phil., June 7, 1945; stage perf. of Part I [Peace] with new Scene 2, Maly Theater, Leningrad, June 12, 1946; “final” version of 11 scenes, Prague, June 25, 1948; another “complete” version, Leningrad, March 31, 1955; rev. version in 13 scenes with cuts, Moscow, Nov. 8, 1957; 13 scenes with a choral epigraph, Moscow, Dec. 15, 1959); A Tale about a Real Man (1947–48; private perf., Leningrad, Dec. 3, 1948; severely censured by Soviet critics and not produced in public until given at the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, Oct. 8, 1960). Ballet : Buffoon (1920; Paris, May 17, 1921); Trapeze (1924; music used in his Quintet); Le Pas d’acier (1924; Paris, June 7, 1927); L’Enfant prodigue (1928; Paris, May 21, 1929); Sur le Borysthène (1930; Paris, Dec. 16, 1932); Romeo and Juliet (1935–36; Brno, Dec. 30, 1938); Cinderella (1940–44; Moscow, Nov. 21, 1945); A Tale of the Stone Flower (1948–50; Moscow, Feb. 12, 1954). Incidental Music To : Egyptian Nights (1933); Boris Godunov (1936); Eugene Onegin (1936); Hamlet (1937–38; Leningrad, May 15, 1938). Fi1m : Lt. Kijé (1933); The Queen of Spades (1936); Alexander Nevsky (1938); Lermontov (1941); Tonya (1942); Ko-tovsky (1942); Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes (1942); Ivan the Terrible (1942–45). ORCH.: Rróes, symphonic tableau (St. Petersburg, Dec. 5, 1910); Autumn, symphonic tableau (Moscow, Aug. 1, 1911); 5 piano concertos: No. 1 (Moscow, Aug. 7, 1912, composer soloist), No. 2 (Pavlovsk, Sept. 5, 1913, composer soloist), No. 3 (1917–21; Chicago, Dec. 16, 1921, composer soloist), No. 4, for the Left Hand (1931; Berlin, Sept. 5, 1956), and No. 5 (Berlin, Oct. 31, 1932, composer soloist); Sinfonietta (1914; Petrograd, Nov. 6, 1915; rev. 1929; Moscow, Nov. 18, 1930); Scythian Suite (1914; Petrograd, Jan. 29, 1916); 2 violin concertos: No. 1 (1916–17; Paris, Oct. 18, 1923) and No. 2 (Madrid, Dec. 1, 1935); 7 syms.: No. 1, Classical (1916–17; Petrograd, April 21, 1918, composer conducting), No. 2 (1924; Paris, June 6, 1925; 2nd version not completed), No. 3 (1928; Paris, May 17, 1929), No. 4 (Boston, Nov. 11, 1930; radically rev. version, 1947), No. 5 (1944; Moscow, Jan. 13, 1945), No. 6 (1945–47; Leningrad, Oct. 11, 1947), and No. 7 (1951–52; Moscow, Oct. 11, 1952); Buffoon, suite from the ballet (1923; Brussels, Jan. 15, 1924); The Love for 3 Oranges, suite from the opera (Paris, Nov. 29, 1925); Divertissement (1925–29; Paris, Dec. 22, 1929); Le Pas d’acier, suite from the ballet (1926; Moscow, May 27, 1928); American Overture for Chamber Orch. (Moscow, Feb. 7, 1927; also for Orch., 1928; Paris, Dec. 18, 1930); L’Enfant prodigue, suite from the ballet (1929; Paris, March 7, 1931); 4 Portraits, suite from the opera The Gambler (1931; Paris, March 12, 1932); On the Dnieper, suite from the ballet (1933); 2 cello concertos: No. 1 (1933–38; Moscow, Nov. 26, 1938, Lev Berezovsky soloist) and No. 2 (rev. version of No. 1; Moscow, Feb. 18, 1952, M. Rostropovich soloist; further rev. as Sinfonia Concertante, Copenhagen, Dec. 9, 1954, Rostropovich soloist); Symphonic Song (Moscow, April 14, 1934); Lt. Kijé, suite from the film music (1934; Paris, Feb. 20, 1937); Egyptian Nights, suite from the incidental music (Radio Moscow, Dec. 21, 1934); Romeo and Juliet, 3 suites from the ballet (No. 1, Moscow, Nov. 24, 1936, No. 2, Leningrad, April 15, 1937, and No. 3, Moscow, March 8, 1946); Peter and the Wolf, symphonic fairy tale (Moscow, May 2, 1936); Semyon Kotko, suite from the opera (1940); A Summer Day, children’s suite for Chamber Orch. (1941); Symphonic March (1941); The Year 1941 (1941; Sverdlovsk, Jan. 21, 1943); Ivan the Terrible, suite from the film music (1942–45); March for Military Orch. (Moscow, April 30, 1944); Ode on the End of the War for 8 Harps, 4 Pianos, Military Band, Percussion Ensemble, and Double Basses (Moscow, Nov. 12, 1945); Cinderella, 3 suites from the ballet (No. 1, Moscow, Nov. 12, 1946, No. 2, 1946, and No. 3, Radio Moscow, Sept. 3, 1947); Waltzes, suite (1946; Moscow, May 13, 1947); Festive Poem (Moscow, Oct. 3, 1947); Pushkin Waltzes (1949); Summer Night, suite from the opera Betrothal in a Convent (1950); Wedding Scene, suite from the ballet A Tale of the Stone Flower (Moscow, Dec. 12, 1951); Gypsy Fantasy from the ballet A Tale of the Stone Flower (Moscow, Nov. 18, 1951); Ural Rhapsody from the ballet A Tale of the Stone Flower (1951); The Mistress of the Copper Mountain, suite from the ballet A Tale of the Stone Flower (1951; unfinished); The Meeting of the Volga with the Don River, for the completion of the Volga-Don Canal (1951; Moscow, Feb. 22, 1952); Cello Concertino (1952; unfinished; completed by M. Rostropovich and D. Kabalevsky); Concerto for 2 Pianos and Strings (1952; unfinished). CHAMBER: Humorous Scherzo for 4 Bassoons (1912; London, Sept. 2, 1916); Ballade for Cello and Piano (1912; Moscow, Feb. 5, 1914); Overture on Hebrew Themes for Clarinet, 2 Violins, Viola, Cello, and Piano (N.Y., Jan. 26, 1920); Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Double Bass (1924; Moscow, March 6, 1927); 2 string quartets: No. 1 (Washington, D.C., April 25, 1931) and No. 2 (1941; Moscow, Sept. 5, 1942); Sonata for 2 Violins (Moscow, Nov. 27, 1932); 2 violin sonatas: No. 1 (1938–46; BBC, London, Aug. 25, 1946) and No. 2 (Moscow, June 17, 1944; transcribed from the Flute Sonata); Flute Sonata (Moscow, Dec. 7, 1943); Sonata for Solo Violin (1947; Moscow, March 10, 1960); Cello Sonata (1949; Moscow, March 1, 1950). Piano : 10 sonatas (1909; 1912; 1917; 1917; 1923; 1940; 1942; 1944; 1947; 1953, unfinished); 4 Etudes (1909); 4 Pieces (1911); 4 Pieces (1912); Toccata (1912); Sarcasms, suite of 5 pieces (1912–14); 10 Pieces (1913); Visions fugitives, suite of 20 pieces (1915–17); Tales of an Old Gran/Dennis McIntireother, 4 pieces (1918); March and Scherzo from the opera The Love for 3 Oranges (1922); Things in Themselves (1928); 6 Pieces (1930–31); 2 sonatinas (1931–32); 3 Pieces (1934); Pensées (1933–34); Children’s Music, 12 easy pieces (1935); Romeo and Juliet, 10 pieces from the ballet (1937); 3 pieces from the ballet Cinderella (1942); 3 Pieces (1941–42); 10 pieces from the ballet Cinderella (1943); 6 pieces from the ballet Cinderella (1944). VOCAL: Chora 1: 2 poems for Women’s Chorus and Orch: The White Swan and The Wave (1909); Seven, They Are Seven, cantata for Tenor, Chorus, and Orch. (1917–18; Paris, May 29, 1924); Cantata for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, for 2 Choruses, Military Band, Accordions, and Percussion, to texts by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin (1937; perf. in Moscow, April 5, 1966, but not in its entirety; the section which used a text from Stalin was eliminated); Songs of Our Days, suite for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Orch. (Moscow, Jan. 5, 1938); Alexander Nevsky, cantata for Mezzo-soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (Moscow, May 17, 1939); Zdravitsa: Hail to Stalin, cantata for Chorus and Orch., for Stalin’s 60th birthday (Moscow, Dec. 21, 1939); Ballad of an Unknown Boy, cantata for Soprano, Tenor, Chorus, and Orch. (Moscow, Feb. 21, 1944); Hymn to the Soviet Union (1943; submitted to the competition for a new Soviet anthem but failed to win; a song by Alexander Alexandrov was selected); Flourish, Powerful Land, cantata for the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution (Moscow, Nov. 12, 1947); Winter Bonfire, suite for Narrators, Boys’ Chorus, and Orch. (Moscow, Dec. 19, 1950); On Guard for Peace, oratorio for Mezzo-soprano, Narrat ors, Boys’ Chorus, and Orch. (Moscow, Dec. 19, 1950). Songs : 2 Poems (1911); The Ugly Duckling, after Hans Christian Andersen (1914); 5 Poems (1915); 5 Poems (1916); 5 Songs without Words (1920; also for Violin and Piano); 5 Poems (1921); 6 Songs (1935); 3 Children’s Songs (1936); 3 Poems (1936); 3 songs from the film Alexander Nevsky (1939); 7 Songs (1939); 7 Mass Songs (1941–42); 12 transcriptions of folk songs (1944); 2 duets (1945); Soldiers’ March Song (1950).


I. Nestyev, S. P. (Moscow, 1946; Eng. tr., N.Y., 1946; enl. Russian ed., Moscow, 1957; Eng. tr. with a foreword by N. Slonimsky, Stanford, Calif., 1961); M. Sabinina, S. P. (Moscow, 1958); M. Hofmann, P. (Paris, 1963); H. Brockhaus, S. P. (Leipzig, 1964); L. and E. Hanson, P., The Prodigal Son (London, 1964); M. Rayment, P. (London, 1965); S. Schlifstein, ed., P. (Moscow, 1965); L. Danko, S.S. P. (Moscow, 1966); M. Brown, The Symphonies of P. (diss., Fla. State Univ., 1967); S. Morozov, P. (Moscow, 1967); V. Serov, S. P., A Soviet Tragedy (N.Y., 1968); R. McAllister, The Operas of S. P. (diss., Cambridge Univ., 1970); I. Martynov, P. (Moscow, 1974); D. Appel, ed., and G. Daniels, tr., P. by P.: A Composer’s Memoir (Garden City, N.Y., 1979); V. Blok, ed., S. P.: Materials, Articles, Interviews (London, 1980); H. Robinson, The Operas of S. P. and Their Russian Literary Sources (diss., Univ. of Calif., Berkeley, 1980); M. Nesteyeva, S.S. P. (Moscow, 1981); N. Savkina, S.S. P. (Moscow, 1982; Eng. tr., Neptune City, N.J., 1984); D. Gutman, P. (London, 1988); S. Fiess, The Piano Works ofS. P. (Metuchen, N.J., 1994); C. Samuel, P. (Paris, 1995); M. Biesold, S. P.: Komponist im Schatten Stalins: Eine Biographie (Berlin, 1996); N. Minturn, The Music of S. P. (New Haven, 1997); H. Robinson, tr. and ed., Selected Letters of S. P. (Boston, 1998).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire