Music of Sergei Prokofiev: A Versatile and Prolific Composer

Updated on January 16, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She plays the piano and recorder, sings, and listens to classical, folk, and early music.

Sergei Prokofiev as a young man, circa 1918
Sergei Prokofiev as a young man, circa 1918 | Source

Sergei Prokofiev

I grew up surrounded by classical music, which both my parents loved. I discovered the music of Sergei Prokofiev at an early age and was immediately attracted to it. I found Prokofiev's compositions unusual, exciting, and evocative. I still enjoy listening to his work today.

Prokofiev was born in 1891 in an area that was then part of Russia but is now part of the Ukraine. He's considered to be one of the major composers of the twentieth century. He was also a prolific and versatile composer who created works in many genres of classical music.

Prokofiev enjoyed experimenting with new sounds and included both dissonance and atonality in his compositions. Based on the works that I've heard, however, the melodies are always dominant, although both the melody and the tempo sometimes change abruptly during a movement.

Today people may be most familiar with Prokofiev's memorable ballet score for Romeo and Juliet or the music that accompanies his story of Peter and the Wolf. Several of his melodies have been incorporated into songs by popular artists and the music of TV shows, however, so people may be more familiar with his work than they realize.

The Romance From Lieutenant Kije: A Melody Used by Sting

Pronunciation

Prokofiev's name is pronounced sir-gay pro-kof-ee-ev.

A Brief Biography of Sergei Prokofiev: Childhood and Youth

Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 23rd, 1891 (or perhaps on April 27th) in the village of Sontsovka. Sontsovka was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Now the village is known as Krasne and is located in a province called Donetsk Oblast, which is part of Eastern Ukraine.

Prokofiev's father was an agronomist and his mother was a keen pianist. The young Prokofiev picked up a love of playing the piano and of composing music from his mother and a love of chess from his father.

Prokofiev studied piano, composition, and conducting at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. While in St. Petersburg, he started to build a reputation as a pianist and a composer and as a musician who explored "modern" techniques.

Sergei Prokofiev, his two sons and his first wife, Lina Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev, his two sons and his first wife, Lina Prokofiev | Source

Graduation and Marriage

After graduating from the conservatory, Prokofiev's musical reputation continued to build as he travelled back and forth between Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union. There were failures as well as successes, however. His novel musical compositions were loved by some people and hated by others. The works that he created while in Russia were his most successful, until he fell out of favour with the communist regime.

In 1923 Prokofiev married a Spanish singer named Carolina (or Lina) Codina. The couple had two sons. They separated in 1941. Mira Mendelson, a librettist, became Prokofiev's second wife. The couple stayed together until the composer's death.

Prokofiev became an adherent of Christian Science as a young man and maintained his allegiance to this movement throughout his life. He had a reputation for being arrogant and egotistical and also had a volatile temper. Despite these character flaws, he was a very creative musician.

Public domain images of Prokofiev and others from wikimedia.org
Public domain images of Prokofiev and others from wikimedia.org

From left to right, moving clockwise: Prokofiev and Mira Mendelson, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian, Prokofiev at the piano (image via the Library of Congress); all photographers unknown

The Final Years of Prokofiev's Life

In 1948, the government banned the performance of Prokofiev's compositions, along with those of other composers whose works didn't fit the Soviet ideal. Other creative artists suffered during this time as well.

After the government crackdown, Prokofiev lived a life of poverty. He also experienced ill health due to chronic hypertension and suffered from the effects of at least one stroke. He never stopped composing, however.

The government also attacked Prokofiev's ex-wife Lina, who was wrongly convicted of espionage and sentenced to twenty years hard labour. She was released after eight years. It's thought that the only reason why Prokofiev didn't suffer a worse fate than he experienced was due to his fame.

There was a renewal of interest in Prokofiev's compositions shortly before his death. It was too late to return to his former prominence in the Russian music scene, however, even if this were possible. Prokofiev died from a cerebral hemorrhage on March 5th, 1953. His death was overshadowed by the death of Joseph Stalin, who died on the same day. It's said that no flowers were available for Prokofiev's casket because the Moscow shops had sold all their flowers for Stalin's funeral.

Sergei Prokofiev's grave
Sergei Prokofiev's grave | Source

An Interview With Sergei Prokofiev

The video below is an exciting find for Prokofiev fans. It shows Prokofiev playing the piano and then describing his current musical activities in response to an interviewer's question. Prokofiev speaks in Russian in the video. A summary of his answer is given below. The summary is based on the translation that accompanies the video on YouTube.

Prokofiev starts by saying that he is creating a symphonic suite of waltzes from several of his compositions. He praises the tenor in a recent production of his War and Peace opera. He then says that he's also working on a sonata for violin and piano. Once this is done he will return to working on his sixth symphony. He also mentions that he has just completed three suites for his Cinderella ballet.

Rare Footage: Prokofiev Plays the Piano and Talks about his Work

Romeo and Juliet Ballet Score

Romeo and Juliet was composed for the Kirov Ballet (now called the Mariinsky Ballet) in 1935. The ballet follows the story of Shakespeare's play, but there was one major difference in Prokofiev's initial score—the story had a happy ending in which both Romeo and Juliet survived their ordeal.

The reason why Prokofiev decided to change Shakespeare's ending isn't known for certain, but it's been suggested that the change was related to his Christian Science background. Prokofiev may have been expressing the movement's strong belief that life is eternal and that there is no death.

The ballet was finally performed in 1940 and had the tragic ending of Shakespeare's story. The modern version of the ballet is very popular, but it's missing scenes and music included in Prokofiev's version. He was required to change the ballet by Stalin's ruling regime and by the needs of the Kirov dancers.

For many people, the highlight of the music is a powerful section known as the Montagues and the Capulets or the Dance of the Knights. After a few musical crescendos that build tension, the first part of the Dance of the Knights is a dark and dramatic passage with a strong, driving beat, soaring strings, and a hint of foreboding. In the ballet, the knights parade in a show of dignified power during this part. The middle part of the dance is played by flutes and quiet background instruments, creating a calm and almost dreamy atmosphere. This part represents the entrance of Juliet. It's followed by a brief return to the pulsating sound of the first part of the dance.

The Montagues and the Capulets, or the Dance of the Knights

The Love for Three Oranges Opera and Orchestral Suite

The Love for Three Oranges is performed today as both an opera and an orchestral suite. The opera is a humorous fairy tale. It's based on a comedic play of the same name written in 1761 by Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright.

The plot of the opera is quite involved, but two key points are the curse of a witch and the search for three giant oranges. The witch is named Fata Morgana. While at the palace of the King of Clubs, she is knocked to the floor by someone, which causes her underwear to become visible. The king's son bursts into laughter at the sight. The angry witch curses the prince, causing him to be obsessed by the idea of finding three oranges. When the prince finds the oranges he discovers a princess inside each one. After some more adventures he ends up marrying one of the princesses.

Prokofiev wrote both the libretto and the music of the opera. The opera's initial reception wasn't entirely favourable. Some reviewers thought that it was puzzling or silly. Today the opera is popular, however, and its humour is appreciated and enjoyed. One of the most enjoyable parts of The Love for Three Oranges suite for many people is the march, which is often played on its own.

Prokofiev Plays the March From the Love for Three Oranges

A troika
A troika | Source

Lieutenant Kijé

Lieutenant Kijé is a 1934 Soviet film about a fictional Lieutenant created by an error. A clerk at the Tsar's palace copies some words incorrectly and by doing so refers to a Lieutenant Kijé, who doesn't really exist. However, the Tsar learns about the Lieutenant and issues him some orders.

The clerk knows that he must keep the non-existence of Lieutenant Kijé a secret in order to avoid the Tsar's anger. A false history is created for the imaginary officer. He has many adventures and even marries. Eventually, the clerk announces that Lieutenant Kijé has died and been buried.

The Troika is a popular section of the film score and the orchestral suite based on the film. A troika is a carriage or sleigh pulled by three horses in parallel. The Troika movement of Lieutenant Kijé is often used in other films to represent a Christmas carriage ride in the snow.

The Romance is another popular section of Lieutenant Kijé. It was created in two versions. One includes a baritone soloist, as in the first video in this article. The other uses a saxophone instead of a vocalist. Prokofiev also created two versions of the Troika, one with a vocalist and one without.

Troika From the Lieutenant Kije Suite

A Listening Guide for Lieutenant Kije

Alexander Nevksy

Prokofiev also wrote the score for the Alexander Nevsky film that was released in 1938. The film was a historical drama and is still admired today, even though it contains elements of Soviet propaganda.

Alexander Nevsky was a real Russian prince of the 1200s. He led an army to fight Teutonic Knights who were invading the country. The knights had already massacred people in the Russian city of Pskov and were heading for the city of Novgorod. Prince Alexander gathered people from Novgorod—most of whom were ordinary people and weren't trained as soldiers—and defeated the invaders with his army.

The decisive battle took place on a frozen lake. It's referred to as the Battle of the Ice (or as the Battle on Ice). Prokofiev's music for this battle is one of the highlights of the film.

Alexander Nevsky: The Battle on Ice

Peter and the Wolf

Although Peter and the Wolf is a children's story, I've included it as one of my favourite Prokofiev works out of nostalgia. My family had an LP record with the story of Peter's adventures on one side and Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra on the other. l loved this record and played it often.

The story is told by a narrator and has a musical accompaniment. Each character in the story is represented by a specific instrument, which plays at the appropriate time.

The story describes an adventure experienced by a boy named Peter, who lives with his grandfather in a forest clearing. One day a dangerous wolf comes out of the forest and tries to attack Peter, the family cat, a visiting bird, and a duck that lives in the garden. The wolf catches and eats the duck. Fortunately, with some clever planning and the aid of the bird, Peter is able to catch the wolf before it does any more harm.

In a nice twist for children, the story reveals that nobody dies. A group of hunters that arrive at the grandfather's house want to kill the wolf, but Peter takes it to the zoo instead in a victory parade. As the story ends, the narrator tells us that if we listen very carefully we will be able to hear quacks. The wolf swallowed the duck whole and she is still alive. As a child, I always wanted the story to continue when I reached this point. I wanted to hear that the duck escaped from the wolf's stomach and that the wolf survived this process.

Three French horns represent the wolf in the story of Peter and the Wolf.
Three French horns represent the wolf in the story of Peter and the Wolf. | Source

The Goal of the Story

Peter and the Wolf was created in 1936 for the Central Children's Theatre in Moscow. It's an educational tale as well as an entertaining one. It allows children to hear the sound of individual instruments as well as instruments blended together.

In the musical story, the bassoon represents the grandfather, the flute the bird, the clarinet the cat, the oboe the duck, and the French horns the wolf. Peter is represented by a string ensemble and drums represents the hunters. At the start of a performance, children are shown the instruments and hear their names and their sounds. In modern renditions of the story, the narrator is an important performer.

A Performance of Peter and the Wolf

Prokofiev and His Legacy

The work that Prokofiev has left us is a wonderful legacy. He created some very interesting pieces of music that I'm still exploring. His determination to keep composing during the difficult final stage of his life is admirable, even though not all of his works from this period are memorable. It's tempting to wonder what else he would have created had he lived longer, recovered from his health problems, and escaped from repression.

References

Life of Sergei Prokofiev from Music Academy Online

Prokofiev biography from the Gramophone website

Information about the composer from San Francisco Classical Voice

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile image
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        Linda Crampton 15 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Frances. I would definitely take some of Prokofiev's music to a desert island, too! It's interesting to speculate about the outcome if Prokofiev had made different decisions in his life.

      • Frances Metcalfe profile image

        Frances Metcalfe 15 months ago from The Limousin, France

        Enjoyed this. Prokoviev's first violin concerto is one of the discs I'd take to a desert island. Why he returned to Russia is a mystery. It definately cramped his style. Didn't know about Lina being sentenced to hard labour - always interested in the biographies of composers. It brings them alive.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I'm happy to meet you, too, Adrien! It's great to find someone else who loves nature and classical music. Thank you for the comment.

      • Adrien Richards profile image

        Adrien 2 years ago

        You are a pianist like me, besides I play strings. I love Prokoviev's violin concertos. The first Russian composer I liked a lot at 14 was Anatoly Lyadov, there are lots of great Russian composers from this era. I am also into nature and Richard Jefferies is one of my favorite writers. Glad meeting you on Hub.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Cynthia. Thank you for the visit and the comment. I'm glad you enjoyed Prokofiev's music. I think he was a wonderful musician.

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia 3 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        AliciaC:

        I was thinking tonight that I didn't listen to enough classical music and then came across this delightful hub, an education for me on Prokofiev. We listened to "Peter and the Wolf" when our children were small. Some of the other pieces were also familiar. I appreciate the music you provided for me this evening AliciaC, along with the interesting story about Prokofiev himself. Good work!

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, RTalloni. The situation in the Ukraine today is very sad. I hope the problems are resolved soon and that peace returns.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

        So interesting on more than one level. To again read of how such people were treated in Russia as the tide against Ukrainians is engulfing them in a repeat of history is heartbreaking. It's so important to keep the history alive. Thank you for this post.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Perspycacious.. I couldn't help but think about the sad situation in the Ukraine as I wrote about Prokofiev's birthplace. Thank you very much for the comment. I hope you and your family have a very happy Thanksgiving!

      • Perspycacious profile image

        Demas W Jasper 3 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

        Perhaps the whole Ukrainian struggle is over the question of whether Russia or the Ukraiine can claim him as their own national hero? Fine Hub. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Ingenira. It's nice to hear about another Prokofiev fan! He was a good chess player. Prokofiev had some interesting abilities.

      • Ingenira profile image

        Ingenira 3 years ago

        Very informative article, well written. Prokofiev is one of my favourite musician. He can play chess quite well too.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Deb. Prokofiev was very talented. He created some great compositions!

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        Very well done. Prokofiev is truly a dedicated and talented artist with incredible musical composing abilities. Thanks for the fabulous introduction.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I appreciate your visit, Vellur. Thank you for the comment!

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Maria! I appreciate your lovely comment, the votes and the share so much. It is inspiring that Prokofiev kept composing while he was ill. I'm glad you like the Romeo and Juliet music. I think it's interesting and beautiful.

      • Vellur profile image

        Nithya Venkat 3 years ago from Dubai

        A great introduction to a very talented composer. Learned a lot by reading your hub, I never knew of this composer before.

      • marcoujor profile image

        Maria Jordan 3 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

        Dear Alicia,

        What a balanced, informative and well-researched post on the life and accomplishments of Sergei Prokofiev. It is truly amazing how much some can accomplish in the face of adversity and declining health...these pieces inspire me that we are all stronger than we may believe.

        I love the ballet score from Romeo and Juliet, never appreciating the man behind it until now. Thanks for all these wonderful videos which warrant a return trip back to check out.

        Voted UP and UABI and sharing...outstanding! Hugs, Maria

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you so much for the kind comment and the votes, tobusiness. I agree - Peter and the Wolf is a great way to introduce children to classical music. It's both enjoyable and educational.

      • tobusiness profile image

        Jo Alexis-Hagues 3 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

        When I saw the title of this hub, I thought no...never heard of this composer, then I saw Peter and the Wolf and knew I was in for a treat. Poor old duckie... not as clever as the bird, I can understand why the child in you still craves a happier ending. Peter and the Wolf is such a wonderfully imaginative way to introduce children to classical music. This is educational and beautifully done. Voted up all the way.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the visit, DDE. I appreciate your comment and votes a great deal.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Interesting and so informed about Prokofiev's life. You got me reading right till the end. I always enjoy reading your informative hubs. Voted up, interesting and useful.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, truthfornow. Prokofiev did leave us with a lovely and very enjoyable legacy.

      • truthfornow profile image

        truthfornow 3 years ago from New Orleans, LA

        Quite a legacy. I enjoyed reading this article and learning about Prokofiev's life.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Martin. I appreciate your visit and your comment very much.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment and all the votes, DzyMsLizzy. I know what you mean about not fitting in! I did go through a phase in my teenage years when I liked popular music as well as classical music, but the desire to listen to popular music faded once I entered my twenties. On the other hand, my love of classical music (and folk music) has always stayed with me!

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 3 years ago from San Francisco

        good job on this

      • DzyMsLizzy profile image

        Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

        Very interesting and well-done bio and sampling of his music. I, too, grew up listening to classical music, as well as that which was popular during my parents' younger years; the 1940s big band and swing sounds, and even older popular music from the WWI era, from my dad's side of the family.

        I never fit in with my peer group as a child, for I did not like the then-popular music.

        Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bill. Thanks for the visit and the comment. Prokofiev certainly did lead an interesting life!

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Flourish. Yes, it was bad luck to die on the same day as Stalin. I've often wondered what the situation would have been like for Prokofiev had he lived after Stalin's death. Thank you very much for the comment.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Yes, that's so true, Nell. Thank you very much for the second comment!

      • bdegiulio profile image

        Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Linda. I had never heard of Sergei Prokofiev. As you mentioned I am familiar with some of his works just not his name. What an interesting life. Thanks for the education.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

        I enjoy biographies, and this one was superb. What poor fortune to have died on the same day as Stalin.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

        I think that happens a lot, we just take music for granted, but forget that there is a person with a whole lot of history behind them, once again, great hub!

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks so much for the comment, the vote and the share, Nell! I think quite a lot of people may be in your situation. They think they haven't heard Prokofiev's music before and then they realize that they have without knowing it!

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

        This was really fascinating, I was sure I hadn't heard of him, but then I played the music videos and yes! of course! such a shame that he had so much trouble in Russia, and didn't get any flowers when he died. I love his music, so thanks, now I know who he was! I learned something new! voted up and shared, nell

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Spasibo, drbj! I appreciate your visit and kind comment very much.

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 3 years ago from south Florida

        I have always been fond of 'Peter and the Wolf' so it was a genuine treat to find this charming hub of yours, Alicia. Sergei would be more than happy with your comprehensive research so I will thank you for him. Bol'shoye spasibo!

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I do, Maren Morgan. Creating this hub was a labour of love for me. I've been wanting to do it for a long time. Thank you very much for the comment.

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

        Fantastic, comprehensive article. You obviously love Prokofiev!

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Faith. Yes, the final part of Prokofiev's life was sad. He left us with some wonderful music. I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed Peter and the Wolf as a child!

        Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, Faith. I hope your Sunday is great, too.

      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

        Hi Linda,

        Interesting article here on a most gifted man, Prokofiev. I found the final years of his life so sad, and I could not help but to think of his children. I loved listening to and watching the videos you have included.

        Oh, wow, I had forgotten all about Peter and the Wolf, and remember listening to it to as a child! Thank you for getting that memory to resurface!

        Up ++++ and away!

        Hope you are enjoying a wonderful Sunday.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Bill!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Sadly, I know very little about classical music, so I appreciate hubs like this one. Thank you for the education.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Prasetio. Thanks for the visit and the vote. I think that Prokofiev was very talented, too. I love his music! I hope that you're having a good day as well.

      • prasetio30 profile image

        prasetio30 3 years ago from malang-indonesia

        Very entertaining hub. I love music. I had never heard about Sergei Prokofiev. But after I read this hub, he is a very talented composer. I also enjoy the video above. Thanks for writing and sharing with us. Voted up as always. Have a good day!

        Prasetio

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Rachael. Thank you very much for the comment and the votes. Russia has certainly provided us with a lot of wonderful musicians, as you say. I think that their music is very enjoyable.

      • AliciaC profile image
        Author

        Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment, MsDora. I appreciate the vote, too! It's a shame that classical music composers aren't as widely known as composers of popular music. Classical music has a lot to offer us.

      • RachaelOhalloran profile image

        Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

        AliciaC, this was a very interesting biography. So many great talents (composers, performers, conductors, etc.) came from Russia - either as their birthplace or having been educated there. I enjoy reading about their lives and it amazes me that so many died at a young age. Voted up and interesting. :)

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

        Thank you for this informative article on the life and works of Sergei Prokofiev. Composers of classical music are not studied as much as they should. Good job and Voted Up!

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