Prokofiev, Sergei (1891–1953)

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Russian and Soviet composer.

Born in tsarist Russia on 23 April 1891 (11 April, old style), Sergei Prokofiev lived and worked under the Soviet regime for the twenty years preceding his death in Moscow on 5 March 1953. Before that he had spent almost twenty years traveling and performing around the globe while remaining a loyal Russian and Soviet citizen.

This biographical trend of east to west to east, together with his generational position between the prerevolutionary Russian nationalistic classical culture and post–Bolshevik Revolution class-conscious internationalist arts made him a unique figure in European and Soviet music. Like Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) his work included operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber music, cantatas, songs, and romances. Unlike Shostakovich, until his final return to the Soviet Union in 1933 Prokofiev did not experience the effects of outright government censorship. Even then his operas and ballets were not banned or ostracized, although unfortunately the stage life of some of them was not as spectacular as the composer's talent warranted.

Prokofiev strove to be contemporary in content, and in the later part of his life more traditional in form, evading current fads and fashions. In the early part of his life before he moved to the West he was interested in Russian turn-of-the-century Silver Age poetry, historical subjects, and the classical literary heritage. In the second part of his life (in the West) until his return to the Soviet Union in 1933 he embraced the achievements of Western expressionist musical theater with its industrial themes. This reflected a certain ideological conformism on the part of the composer, which explains his quick and ardent acceptance of the Stalinist agenda in the arts and culture after returning to his home country.

Visiting France and England before the outbreak of World War I, he met the founder of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, who had also patronized Igor Stravinsky, and ultimately wrote three ballets for Diaghilev's company. His Classical Symphony (1917) was a modern reincarnation of Joseph Haydn's work. His opera Love for Three Oranges (1919) was commissioned by the Chicago Opera Association. He traveled for the next decade and a half, but ultimately, not feeling at home in the West (unlike Stravinsky), he returned to Moscow in 1933. The Soviet government gave him a luxurious apartment and Soviet premier Vyacheslav Molotov specifically instructed his minister for arts affairs not to interfere in Prokofiev's work.

Back in the USSR he wrote propagandistic works: Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution (1937; text selected from the works of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, first performed thirty years later without Stalin's quotes); Zdravitsa (Hail) to commemorate Joseph Stalin's sixtieth birthday (1939); Tale of a Boy Who Remained Unknown (1944); and On Guard for Peace (1950). The titles of his choral works underscore the composer's outward submission to the dogmas of socialist realism that required showing life in romantic terms, keeping in mind the future optimistic and glorious resolution of all possible conflicts and present-day hardships. Though music by nature was less subject to censorship and government dictates, the verbal part of it (texts, lyrics, librettos, even the titles of symphonic movements) were subject to Communist Party and state scrutiny.

Prokofiev's opera Semyon Kotko (1939) dealt with the civil war in Ukraine and was shelved following the signing of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. His epic opera War and Peace (1941–1952), with scenes based on Leo Tolstoy's novel of the same name, resurrected the heroic Russian past, but did not fit Stalin's design for the grandiose post–World War II nationalistic renaissance. The socialist realist opera Tale of a Real Man (1947–1948) glorified the deeds of a Soviet pilot who after losing both legs returned to his duties. Its completion coincided with ideology tsar Andrei Zhdanov's crackdown in music and it was heavily criticized. However, Prokofiev's ballets and film music were welcomed by the State and brought him wider official and popular recognition.

His ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935–1936) was staged at the Moscow Bolshoi and Leningrad Kirov theaters and became a constant feature of government-sponsored concerts. The Tale of a Stone Flower (1948–1950) suited the resurgence of Russian nationalist content after the victory in World War II. Prokofiev's role during the golden age of the Soviet cinema cannot be underestimated either. He was a favorite composer of the film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, and his music for the epic movies Aleksandr Nevsky (1938) and the two parts of Ivan the Terrible (1942, 1945) won him two Stalin Prizes. That did not prevent Stalin from banning the second part of Ivan the Terrible after sensing allusions to his own reign.

Prokofiev, though recognized as one of the top Soviet composers, was not integrated into the official hierarchy to the extent of Dmitri Shostakovich or the Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978). He won six Stalin Prizes but was never awarded the title of People's Artist of the Soviet Union. His death on 5 March 1953 did not get national attention, in part because it coincided with Stalin's death on the same day, but his music was played in the Column Hall where Stalin lay in state. According to newly released archival sources Prokofiev was even denied a prestigious government pension before his death. This injustice was addressed post-humously during Nikita Khrushchev's Thaw, when Prokofiev was the first among Soviet composers to be granted the newly established prestigious Lenin Prize (which replaced the now-discredited and discontinued Stalin Prizes).

While Stravinsky remained an eminently Russian composer and at the same time a citizen of the world, and Shostakovich was a mostly Soviet composer with strong cosmopolitan tendencies, Prokofiev can be considered a Russian Soviet composer. His life and work created a symbolic bridge between Russian prerevolutionary culture and turbulent Soviet-era upheavals. He remained one of the most accomplished masters of the twentieth century, leaving a treasure of ballets, operas, symphonies, suites, overtures, concertos, chamber music, choral works, piano sonatas, songs, and film music, and the beloved symphonic children's tale Peter and the Wolf (1936).

See alsoShostakovich, Dmitri; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph; Stravinsky, Igor.


Hanson, Lawrence and Elisabeth. Prokofiev, the Prodigal Son: An Introduction to His Life and Work in Three Movements. London, 1964.

Nestyev, Israel V. Prokofiev. Translated by Florence Jonas; foreword by Nicolas Slonimsky. Stanford, Calif., 1960.

Prokofiev, Sergei. Prokofiev by Prokofiev: A Composer's Memoir. Edited by David H. Appel; translated by Guy Daniels. Garden City, N.Y., 1979.

——. Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings. Translated and edited by Oleg Prokofiev. London, 1991.

Leonid Maximenkov