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.
Sergei Prokofieff is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
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