Sergei Prokofieff was born in Sontzovka, near Ekaterinoslav, on 23 April 1891 and received his first musical training from his pianist mother. His first composition was written at the age of seven, and for a while he studied privately with Reinhold Glière before entering the St Peterburg Conservatoire at the age of thirteen. His teachers there were Anna Essipova (piano), Anatol Liadov (harmony and counterpoint), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (orchestration) and Nikolai Tcherepnin (conducting). He was outstanding both as a pianist and as a composer, and he graduated from the Conservatoire in 1914 excelling in both capacities, as soloist in his own First Piano Concerto – the modernity of which disconcerted the more conservative of the examiners, although it won him the Rubinstein Prize.
That same year Prokofieff travelled to London, where Russian music was very fashionable: Chaliapin and Diaghilev were both active, but initial attempts to persuade Diaghilev to mount Prokofieff’s opera The Gambler were unsuccessful. Prokofieff returned to Russia and wrote two ballets for Diaghilev, Ala and Lolly (which Diaghilev refused) and Chout (intended as a replacement); other works from this period include the perennially popular Classical Symphony, Prokofieff’s First, and Violin Concerto No.1 – he had found his mature style very quickly.
The turmoil of the Revolution (on which Prokofieff seems to have looked upon with some favour – though he later admitted he hardly realised what was at stake) drove him from Russia and early in 1918 he made his way to America; his stay in the west was to last for seventeen years. In the early 1920s he married the Spanish-born singer, Lina Llubera, and established himself in Paris, composing between international tours as a pianist. The works that emerged – the operas The Love of Three Oranges (1919) and The Fiery Angel (1919–27), the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies (1924–25, 1928, 1929–30), the ballets Pas d’Acier (1925–26) and The Prodigal Son (1928–29) – showed that his style could embrace an enormous range of expression: from a childlike lyricism via fantastic whimsy and motoric rhythms to an angular expressionism – and Prokofieff was always an entirely natural melodist.
In spite of a hugely successful visit to the Soviet Union in 1927, coinciding with a well-received production of The Love of Three Oranges, Prokofieff returned to the West once more, to his usual round of concertising and composing, writing and playing the last of his cycle of five piano concertos.
In 1936 Prokofieff took the fateful decision to return to the Soviet Union – ‘like a chicken to the soup’, in the words of Dmitri Shostakovich. With his initial sympathy for the goals of Soviet society, he felt that the composer ought to offer something directly relevant to the people, and he cast around for suitably Soviet subjects. Although his massive Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution was rejected by a committee of Soviet censors, Prokofieff enjoyed considerable success as a composer of film scores (Stalin’s preferred art-form) and some of his best-known music first appeared for this medium: Lieutenant Kijé (1934) and the cantata Alexander Nevsky (1938–39), refashioned from his score for Eisenstein’s epic. For a few years he found renewed favour – with a 1940 staging of his now-classic ballet Romeo and Juliet, completed four years earlier – but in February 1948 his career came to a crashing halt when the ‘Zhdanovshchina’ that heralded a tightening of state control over cultural affairs condemned him, Shostakovich and several others as ‘formalists’.
Prokofieff had suffered severe concussion in a fall in 1945, with permanent effects on his health, and his precarious physical condition combined with political disfavour to make his last years unhappy ones, despite the championship of some courageous young musicians, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter among them. Although he continued to compose right up to his death, he was denied one final satisfaction: his death, on 5 March 1953, occurred only hours before that of Stalin.
The 125th anniverary of Prokofieff's birth falls in 2016.
Sergei Prokofieff is published by Boosey & Hawkes
This biography can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with the following credit: Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes
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