Sergey Prokofiev

• Composers and Lyricists

Sergey Prokofiev (18911953)

Of the three Russian giants of twentieth century music, Sergey Prokofiev is both the most popular and the most difficult to classify. His music never caused riots, like Stravinsky's (18821971) The Rite of Spring. It does not, characteristically, have the ferocious authority of Shostakovich. He could be as aggressively modernist as Stravinsky, and he could sound precisely like Haydn. He could plumb the depths of tragedy like Shostakovich, and he could write melodies of such infectious simplicity that they have been turned into Christmas songs and catfood commercials.

Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born in the village of Sontsovka, Ukraine, in 1891. His family were wealthy agriculturalists. His mother began to teach him the piano at the age of three, and by the age of five he was composing. He was a Mozart-like child virtuoso. At the age of thirteen, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and made his professional debut in 1908. He immediately gained a reputation as an enfant terrible-literally, a terrible child. His first two piano sonatas were reviled by critics for their dissonance (and have since become part of the piano repertory). In 1914 he traveled to London where he met Stravinsky and gained a commission from the Diaghilev Ballet. His score was rejected, but his second ballet, Chout, was produced in 1921.

In 1917, Prokofiev wrote a violently modernistic operatic adaptation of Dostoyevsky's dark tale of obsession, The Gambler. The same year, he left Russia in the grip of revolution to visit Japan, the United States, and Europe. While in the U.S., he wrote The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. Only two years separate it from The Gambler, but this comic fairy-tale could not be more different in style or outlook. It shows Prokofiev's melodic gifts at their most fluent, and it has justly become a favorite of the twentieth-century operatic repertory. Prokofiev settled in France, and in 1921 wrote his First Symphony, the Classical Symphony. He followed this perfectly-executed pastiche of 18th century symphonic form with the extravagantly lyrical Violin Concerto no. 1. Prokofiev followed this with the premiere of his colorful and bombastic Piano Concerto no. 3 (19171921), the most popular of his piano concertos. His opera The Fiery Angel (1923, rev. 1926) is as harsh and mechanistic as his Symphony no. 2 (1925). His ballet suite The Prodigal Son (1929) was much gentler in style.

Prokofiev's stylistic eclecticism reached some kind of equilibrium when he resettled in Russia in 1934. Prokofiev's twin impulses toward barbarism and lyricism found expression in his great Romeo & Juliet, written for the Bol'shoy Opera in 1938, and in his scores for Sergei M. Eisenstein's (18981948) films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (19421945). Peter and the Wolf (1936) is the greatest of all children's guides to the orchestra. The war stirred his patriotism: the piano sonatas 6-8 (19401944) mingle Russian folk themes with rousing martial airs, and the Symphony no.5 blends inspirational material with visions of pastoral peace. His monumental operatic setting of War and Peace (19411947) celebrates the victory of Russia over a foreign enemy.

The peace brought with it a different kind of conflict for Prokofiev. In 1945 his wife was arrested and sent to a labor camp for unnamed anti-Soviet activities. Prokofiev himself was criticized by Stalin for adopting western "formalist" styles. Like Shostakovich, he appeared to toe the party line, but his Symphony no. 6 (1947), his Violin Sonata (1947) and his Cello Sonata (1949) all resonated with darkly tragic ironies that can only be interpreted as critiques of Stalin's repressions. Prokofiev retired from public life in the late 1940s and died on March 5, 1953-the same day as Stalin.

Dmitri Shostakovich (19061975) called Prokofiev "a composer of genius (who) has made an immense, priceless contribution to the musical culture of Russia." The Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (19151997) characterized Prokofiev as "someone with no principles, who wrote on commission." With Prokofiev, the two judgments are not necessarily contradictory.