Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev

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Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev

The Russian-Soviet composer Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a key figure in modern music. He was prolific in all genres and was a master craftsman. His works are probably the most played of 20th-century composers.

The accomplishment of Sergei Prokofiev, together with that of Dmitri Shostakovich, very nearly sums up the contribution of Soviet music in the 20th century. Although Prokofiev was a brilliant pianist and writer for piano, he sought his creative beginnings in opera. Yet very often the end product, through his lifelong habit of rewriting and recasting, was a dazzling orchestral work. His particular idiom remained distinctive although attenuated in later years under the pressure to succeed in terms not his own.

Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka (now Krasnoe) in the Ekaterinoslav Guberniya of the Ukraine, where his father managed the Sontsov family estates. Sergei's mother, a woman of considerable cultural pretension, indulged her only child's precocity. Indeed, young Prokofiev was so musically industrious that it would have been difficult to stop him. By the age of 10 he had written a number of pieces, including an opera, Giant. The young boy was taken to the Moscow Conservatory, and, for the next two summers, Reinhold Glière went to Sontsovka to tutor him.

At the age of 12 Prokofiev entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He spent the next 10 years there, and, although he later had very little good to say of the institution, its traditions, or its teachers, he received an impressive technical grounding. More important to him through the conservatory years were contacts with his fellow students Boris Asafiev and Nikolai Miaskovsky, with prominent (and rich) musical figures like Serge Koussevitsky, and with the growing body of internationally minded artists and entrepreneurs in the capital city. Prokofiev traveled to London in 1914, heard Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and established a liaison with the impresario Serge Diaghilev. Prokofiev was already a successful musician, published and performed, and the Diaghilev contact was the all but final stamp of Russian creative maturity in 1914.

Years Abroad

Prokofiev longed for a sustained stay and impact abroad—the Russian tradition most recently confirmed by Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Stravinsky. But the war, Russia's faltering role therein, and the two revolutions of 1917 caused Prokofiev's Western contacts to pause. The "angels" that had financed others failed to materialize at first, and Diaghilev was not encouraging. In mid-1917 Prokofiev reached an understanding with the Chicago industrialist Cyrus McCormick. By this time Prokofiev had composed a number of piano pieces, the Scythian Suite for orchestra (a recasting of a ballet, Ala and Lolli, commissioned but rejected by Diaghilev), the First (Classical) Symphony, the First Violin Concerto, and the First and Second Piano Concertos, the Third being in the works. With these behind him, McCormick's invitation in his pocket, and the consent of the new Soviet government, the composer left for the United States in 1918.

In 1921 Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges was premiered in Chicago. The American years were fitful ones financially, not the least because of competition from other Russian émigrés. He began in America the opera Flaming Angel, which, though never performed in his lifetime, was to dominate his thinking for many years. In 1922 he moved to Ettal in the Bavarian Alps. Here he lived with his mother and with his first wife, Caroline Codina, working mostly on the Flaming Angel and on piano and vocal works. Eventually he settled in Paris with his family and made that the center of his activity until 1936.

The Western years were productive ones, and it is well to emphasize the point, since Soviet thinking insists that they were "unproductive years of rootless desperation." He completed (for Diaghilev) the ballets Le Pas d'acier (1925), Prodigal Son (1928), and On the Dnieper (1930); the operas Love for Three Oranges (1919) and Flaming Angel (1927); a number of vocal works; the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Piano Concertos; chamber works, including opus numbers 34, 35, 39, 50 and 56; and many other works. He worked constantly, often on more than one piece at a time, and no small part of his effort was directed toward casting works for other mediums in symphonic form. Much of his work appears in the original version and in an orchestral version or versions. This includes all the ballets, parts of the Piano Sonatas, chamber works, and even his beloved opera Flaming Angel (as the Third Symphony).

Return to Soviet Union

In 1927 Prokofiev visited the Soviet Union and was well received. But on a second visit in 1929 the conservative Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) dominated the musical press and attacked the reluctant émigré. In late 1932 he was encouraged to visit again: the RAPM had been abolished, and his friends Miaskovsky, Asafiev, and Glière were enthusiastic about creative prospects in the Soviet Union. Prokofiev still hesitated, still visited, and sought and probably got assurances from high party and government sources. He finally moved to Moscow in 1936. He had done well in the West, but he was dissatisfied: as a concert pianist he had stood in Rachmaninov's shadow; and he had failed to capture that creative leadership enjoyed by Arnold Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

Through 1938 Prokofiev continued to tour the West, but the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 brought on a politically anti-international period, and he never went abroad again. He was simultaneously in the throes of separation from his wife, herself an international symbol. For these reasons his autobiographical memoirs, a substantial part of which was written during the pact, are unfortunately inaccurate in discussing the West. In his memoirs he characterized his own style as shaped from four main lines of development: first, the lyric, singing line; second, the classical grounding; third, the urge to seek and innovate; and fourth, a relentless, motoric, toccatalike pulse.

Prokofiev had already begun, in his Soviet period, to write movie scores (Lieutenant Kijé, 1934; Alexander Nevsky, 1938), patriotic works (Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, 1937), and works of lighter genre and direct appeal (Peter and the Wolf, 1936). He held at this time the notion of multiple styles for the contemporary composer. In 1939 he began another opera, Semyon Kotko, based on a story by Valentin Kataev. The opera dealt with Germans as enemies and was difficult to mount during first a pro-German then an anti-German period. In it Prokofiev worked out a usage for those idioms and experiments too advanced for the increasingly conservative official view of art: the depiction of inimical forces. Prokofiev's coworker, the famous director Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested and sent to a labor camp (where he died) for creative errors. Prokofiev seemed immune to such reprimands and punishments, which were common in the late 1930s.

During World War II Prokofiev, with his second wife, Myra Mendelson, was evacuated to a series of Eastern centers. He worked on more film scores, including Ivan the Terrible with Sergei Eisenstein, his opera War and Peace, and on the Second (Kabardinian) String Quartet. He completed the Fifth Symphony in 1945. That year he incurred the illness, hypertension, that was finally to prove fatal, and it became clear that he was beginning to draw critical fire from official and semiofficial sources. In 1948 he was a principal target in the party and government criticism and punishment of artists. He did not live to see that criticism rescinded, as Shostakovich did. Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953.

In the works of his last 8 to 10 years Prokofiev added at least two more lines of development to those he had specified earlier. One of these was the unabashed heroic element, first used to any great extent in the Fifth Symphony. This work, with its "heroism, " indicated that he had noted the combinations so successful in Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. The other line, perhaps involuntarily developed, was that of the ingenuous—the deliberately but sincerely naive. This involved light, vulnerable, singable tunes and harmonies and showed scant trace of the caustic, irreverent treatment he often reserved for such simplicity.

In his final years Prokofiev's performances were officially limited because of his clouded political situation and were generally confined to children's concerts and children's performing groups. His last works, including the Seventh Symphony and the ballet Stone Flower, reflected this. He even spoke of a refreshed awareness of his own childhood. Since his death his more mature works, and especially those of his foreign period, have had increasing influence on younger composers.

Further Reading

The primary source on Prokofiev available in English is the Autobiography, Articles, and Reminiscences (trans. 1958), published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House. The autobiographical part was written in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The official biography is that of Israel Nestyev, published in English translation by Florence Jonas in 1960. This is an enlargement of an earlier book, and a comparison of the two is politically interesting. There are a number of biographies by Westerners, although the late ones in English—Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson (1964), and Victor Seroff (1968)—are popular rather than accurate items. Malcolm Brown, Symphonies of Prokofiev (in press), should prove authoritative. No book on contemporary music is without its chapter on Prokofiev. A generous treatment is afforded in William Austin, Music in the Twentieth Century (1966); and a chapter with recent information appears in Stanley D. Krebs, Soviet Composers and the Development of Soviet Music (1970).

Additional Sources

Gutman, David, Prokofiev, London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1990.

Prokofiev, Sergey, Prokofiev by Prokofiev: a composer's memoir, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.

Prokofiev, Sergey, Soviet diary, 1927, and other writings, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Robinson, Harlow, Sergei Prokofiev: a biography, New York: Paragon House, 1988, 1987.

Sergei Prokofiev: materials, articles, interviews, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978.

Seroff, Victor Ilyitch, Sergei Prokofiev: a Soviet tragedy: the case of Sergei Prokofiev, his life& work, his critics, and his executioners, New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1979, 1969. □

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