Biography and Music of Sergei Prokofiev: A Versatile Composer
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 piece in the video below has been used by the artist known as Sting.
The Romance From Lieutenant Kije
Prokofiev's name is pronounced sir-gay pro-kof-ee-ev.
The Composer's 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.
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.
From left to right in the photo collage above, 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.
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.
A Performance and an Interview
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 section. The middle part of the dance is played by flutes and quiet background instruments, creating a calm and almost dreamy atmosphere. This section represents the entrance of Juliet. It's followed by a brief return to the pulsating sound of the first part of the dance.
The Dance of the Knights
The Love for Three Oranges
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 piece on a piano in the video below.
The March from The Love for Three Oranges
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.
The Troika From the Lieutenant Kije Suite
A Listening Guide for Lieutenant Kije
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.
The Battle on Ice from Alexander Nevsky:
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Linda Crampton