Sergei Prokofiev spent his last years in Soviet Russia, struggling with strict censorship yet managing to compose some of his greatest works. Among these is the 1938 film score for Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Commissioned by Stalin himself, the film tells the story of a thirteenth-century warrior who defended Novgorod from Teutonic knights. The German invaders clearly represent the menace of Hitler’s Germany, while the heroic Nevsky was a stand-in for Stalin himself. Suppressed when Stalin and Hitler signed a mutual nonaggression pact, the film was finally released in 1941. Today, Alexander Nevsky is recognized as a cinematic and musical classic as well as a masterful work of propaganda.
Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891 in Sontsovka (now the village of Krasnoe), Ukraine. Prokofiev was the only child of Sergei Alekseievich Prokofiev and Mariya Zitkova who lived past infancy and, as a result, the young Sergei was the object of much doting. His father was an agricultural engineer who managed the estate of Sontsovka and his mother, though born a serf, was a well-educated woman with a broad knowledge of the arts. Sergei was schooled in the natural sciences by his father, European languages by French and German governesses, and learned about the arts from his mother.
He began piano lessons at age four and it was quickly apparent that the boy had a talent for composition. It was also during his early years that his mother took him to many opera performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg (notably Gounod’s Faust, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, Verdi’s La Traviata, and Bizet’s Carmen). This exposure inspired the nine-year-old boy to write his first opera in the spring of 1900, which he and his playmates debuted for his family.
In the autumn of 1904 the thirteen- year-old Prokofiev passed the entrance exams for the St. Petersburg Conservatory; he entered the school much younger than most of his classmates. There he studied composition with notable teachers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Nonetheless, he boldly expressed his dissatisfaction with much of his conservatory education, already exhibiting an impolitic candor while still a student. It was in the St. Petersburg music scene that he first cultivated a reputation as an enfant terrible; he would receive praise for his unique compositions and prodigious piano abilities and then turn around and display a lack of tact when it came to criticizing his peers. Although he received his diploma in composition in 1909 with average marks and could have elected to leave the institution, he decided to continue at the conservatory as a piano student.
He studied piano with the highly regarded teacher and pianist Anna Yesipova and at the same time he began to study conducting with Nikolai Tcherepnin, a well known conductor and respected composer in his own right. In addition to these studies, Prokofiev authored a large body of music at this time, much of which was later revised and became the basis for future works. For example, his Sonata in A minor (1907) became the Third Sonata op. 28 (1917) and the Sonata in C minor of 1908 became the Fourth Sonata op. 29 (1917). He also composed some large-scale works like the symphonic poems Dreams, op.6 (1910) and Autumnal Sketch, op. 8, (1910, second version 1915, third version 1934). These works were influenced by the Russian composer Aleksandr Skryabin’s orchestral Rêverie and Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead and Second Symphony. He also wrote his first two piano concertos, as well as the five piano pieces Sarcasms (1912-1914). In 1914, Prokofiev performed his own First Piano Concerto for which he won first prize in the diploma piano competition, which also included a grand piano as a prize.
In 1914, as a graduation gift from his mother, Prokofiev traveled to Paris and to London where he heard Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Petrouchka, and Firebird Suite as well as Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. While traveling he also had the opportunity to meet with influential figures. There was, for instance, a somewhat prickly meeting between Prokofiev and Stravinsky, whom he had already met in St. Petersburg, resulting in lasting professional animosity. Also, through a mutual friend he was introduced to Sergei Diaghilev (choreographer for and founder of the Ballets Russes) and played his Second Piano concerto for him. This meeting led to the commission of a ballet, Ala i Lolli, from Diaghilev. However, when Prokofiev later met with Diaghilev in Rome to show him sketches, Diaghilev dropped the project.
Prokofiev nonetheless reworked the material from the Ala i Lolli sketches and created the Scythian Suite, op. 20 (1914–15), which debuted in 1916. This work was heavily influenced by the sonorities and rhythmic ostinatos used by Stravinsky. Despite this fact, Prokofiev outwardly declared his distaste for recent Stravinsky works. In any case, this new work was well received. Ironically, its reception was not what the composer had imagined. With this work Prokofiev was trying to be provocative and had hoped to create the same sense of shock and scandal that Stravinsky had with his recent works, but by this time the audiences were more accepting of the new musical idioms.
One year later, in the Classical Symphony, op. 25 (1916-1917) Prokofiev explored a new compositional direction; he set out to write a work that imagined what it would be like if Franz Joseph Haydn were to write a symphony in the early twentieth century. This work became a hallmark of the emerging neo-classical style.
Path to Emigration
By his own account, the February Revolution of 1918 took Prokofiev by surprise. He was enthusiastic about the general idea of revolution, especially in terms of seeking a radical break with tradition in the arts. However, it seems clear that he was not well versed in the wider implications of the revolution’s socialist agenda as it applied to the arts, specifically concerning the gradual tightening of stylistic control that the Soviet regime subsequently imposed on the creation of art. Ultimately, the political and social upheaval of that year led Prokofiev to go abroad.
Arriving in the United States in the autumn of 1918, the twenty-seven-year-old Prokofiev was immediately compared to another famous Russian immigrant, Sergei Rachmaninov. Prokofiev started out by giving a successful concert in New York that led to other engagements, but he found the sensational success that Rachmaninov had achieved to be elusive, due in part to Prokofiev’s late realization that he needed to bolster his image as a virtuoso interpreter, not only of his own works, but also of well-known repertoire by other composers.
Prokofiev described his time in the United States as miserable, but despite this sentiment, he was actually fairly productive. In New York, the Classical Symphony and his First Piano Concerto were performed with the emigrant ensemble, the “Russian Orchestra.” In Chicago, he had performances of the Scythian Suite and the First Piano Concerto. From this time on Prokofiev regularly appeared in American concert halls, giving approximately sixty to seventy concerts a year from 1918-1922.
During his Chicago debut, in 1919, he met the conductor of the Chicago Opera, Cleofonte Campanini. This meeting led to his commission for the opera The Love for Three Oranges, op. 33 (1919), since the score for his earlier opera The Gambler (1915-1917), in which Campanini was also interested, had been left behind in Petrograd (St. Petersburg became Petrograd after the revolution). The premiere of the opera was postponed when Campanini died in December 1919, but eventually debuted in 1921 under the composer’s baton.
After his second season in America, Prokofiev turned his attention back to Europe. In 1920, Prokofiev was able to reconnect with the musical scene in Paris and in London and saw the European premiere of his Scythian Suite and the ballet The Tale of the Buffoon in the spring of 1921 to much critical acclaim, which, he believed would put him on a par with Stravinsky.
Living in Paris in 1923 with his new wife, the Spanish mezzo-soprano Lina Llubera, he wrote major works and had performances of earlier ones. However, in spite of earlier critical acclaim, his music met with lukewarm reception. Parisian audiences were not as apt to find the difficult sonic language as novel as it once was, since the overall structures of Prokofiev’s music were still following Romantic era models. The Parisian audiences, by contrast, were perhaps looking for an even more marked break with traditional idioms than Prokofiev’s music represented.
He began writing the opera The Fiery Angel, op. 37 in 1919, but left it unfinished until securing an opera company that was interested in producing it. In 1926, Bruno Walter, the head of the Berlin Opera, considered producing this work, at which point Prokofiev began revision and orchestration. The score was not finished until 1927, and it was under Sergei Koussevitzky’s baton that parts of the opera were performed in Paris. The premiere of the full piece was not given until 1954, after the composer’s death.
After writing several smaller works and revising his early opera The Gambler (1916-1917, rev. 1927), which finally had its premiere in Brussels in 1929, and the ballet Le pas d’acier, he received a series of commissions in 1930 that led to the writing of his First String Quartet op. 50 (1930), the ballet Na Dnepre (dedicated to the memory of Diaghilev), the Fourth Piano Concerto op. 53 (1931), the Fifth Piano Concerto op. 55 (1932), and the Second Violin Concerto op. 63 (1935).
Returning to Russia
During Prokofiev’s years abroad, he maintained his ties to Russia by returning intermittently for concert tours and performances. In 1923, a new Soviet publication presented a series of laudatory articles discussing his work and his success abroad. From then on, most of his repertoire was performed regularly in the Soviet Union. Subsequently his music was published under the auspices of the Soviet State Music Publishing House.
It may have been a mix of homesickness, nationalistic pride, and career advancement that caused Prokofiev to move his family back to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1936. Unfortunately by this time in Russia, the return meant that he was required to follow certain conventions in his compositions. By the late 1920s the communist party had begun to view the most recent artistic movements, such as formalism, impressionism, and cubism as decadent, since they existed before the revolution. Under the Soviet government a special bureau was created, the Composers’ Union, to keep track of artists and their works. The works created under the Stalinist government had to eschew all aspects of modernism and be explicitly focused on the doctrine of “socialist realism,” which relied heavily on the imagery of art depicting and glorifying the proletariat's struggle toward socialist progress.
It is unclear if Prokofiev had really assessed the political situation in Russia and, it seems, that he may have returned under the promise of preferential treatment. For example, he was able to maintain a passport and to continue having an international concert career (though it was subsequently revoked in 1938); this was not a common practice during this time in Russia. Perhaps equally enticing for his ego was the opportunity to be the leading composer in Russia—in the United States he was second to Rachmaninoff and in Europe he was behind Stravinsky. And despite the fact that it was during this period that Prokofiev was making cautious adaptations of his musical style to fit into the Soviet ideal, he did indeed produce some highly regarded works. These include the very famous symphonic fairytale Peter and the Wolf op. 67 (1936) and the film scores for the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander the Great and Ivan the Terrible, which were later set as the concert works op. 78, (1938-1939) and op. 116 (1942-1945), respectively.
In 1941, he separated from his wife and began a relationship with the twenty-five-year-old Mira Mendelson. This divorce created an unstable situation for his former wife. Being of Spanish descent and living in Russia, she was closely scrutinized by the Soviet government. In 1948, she was convicted of espionage for trying to send money to her mother via an embassy and was sentenced to twenty years in the Gulag, only to be released after Stalin’s death.
During World War II, there was a slight relaxing of the government control over the arts, but in 1946 the Soviet Party once again tightened its oversight on its production. Under the new stricter policies, a majority of Prokofiev’s works were seen as examples of decadent “formalism” and were therefore deemed a threat to the Soviet people. In 1948, Prokofiev wrote a public letter to the Composers’ Union, denouncing his earlier music and then set out to write a new opera titled The Story of a Real Man based on the true story of an injured pilot who became a war hero.
His last opera was not well received by the state and Prokofiev found it difficult to compose much more due to the compromise between the official aesthetic and his personal concept of art. To complicate matters, by this time he had had several heart attacks and suffered from severe headaches. As a result, his doctors forbade him to work.
Ironically, Prokofiev’s death on March 5, 1953, went largely unnoticed, since the death of his cultural oppressor, Stalin, died on the same day.
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Redepenning, Dorothea: ‘Prokofiev, Sergey (Sergeyevich)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 15 September 2005), <http:www.grovemusic.com>
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