Sergei Prokofiev

From New World Encyclopedia

Sergei Prokofiev in New York, 1918

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (Russian: Серге́й Серге́евич Проко́фьев, Sergéj Sergéjevič Prokófjev) (Alternative transliterations of his name include Sergey or Serge, and Prokofief, Prokofieff, or Prokofyev.)27 April [O.S. 15 April] 1891 - March 5, 1953[1]) was a Russian composer who mastered numerous musical genres and came to be admired as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

Along with Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian, Prokofiev was one of the innovators and leading composers in the rise of modern music in Russia. As a result he would come into conflict with the Soviet authorities, especially during the era of Zhdanovism in the late 1940s, when political orthodoxy was imposed on the arts, including music.

Prokofiev is famous for numerous compositions, including the popular Peter and the Wolf, the ballet Romeo and Juliet and for his film scores for Eisenstein's films Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky.


Early years

Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka [2](now Borysivka), near Jekaterinoslaw (also subsequently renamed), Ukraine, of the Russian Empire. He displayed unusual musical abilities by the age of five. His first piano composition to be written down (by his mother), an 'Indian Gallop', was in the key of F Lydian (F major with a B natural instead of B flat) as the young Prokofiev did not like to touch the black keys. By the age of seven, he had also learned to play chess. Much like music, chess would remain a passion his entire life, and he became acquainted with world chess champions Jose Raul Capablanca and Mikhail Botvinnik.

At the age of nine he was composing his first opera,[3] The Giant, as well as an overture and miscellaneous pieces.

In 1902 Prokofiev's mother obtained an audience with Sergei Taneyev, director of the Moscow Conservatoire. Taneyev suggested that Prokofiev should start lessons in composition with Alexander Goldenweiser, who declined, and Reinhold Glière.[4] Glière visited Prokofiev in Sontsivka twice during the summer to teach him. By then Prokofiev had already produced a number of innovative pieces. As soon as he had the necessary theoretical tools, he quickly started experimenting, creating the basis for his own musical style.

After a while, Prokofiev felt that the isolation in Sontsivka was restricting his further musical development.[5] Although his parents were not too keen on forcing their son into a musical career at such an early age,[6] in 1904 he moved to Saint Petersburg and applied to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, after encouragement by the director Alexander Glazunov, who was later unhappy with Prokofiev's music.[7] By this time Prokofiev had composed two more operas, Desert Islands and The Feast during the Plague and was working on his fourth, Undine.[8] He passed the introductory tests and started his composition studies the same year. Several years younger than most of his classmates, Prokofiev was viewed as eccentric and arrogant, and he often expressed dissatisfaction with much of the education, which he found boring.[9] During this period he studied under Anatol Liadov, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, among others. Later, he would regret squandering his opportunity to learn more from Rimsky-Korsakov. He also became friends with Boris Asafiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky.

As a member of the Saint Petersburg music scene, Prokofiev eventually earned a reputation as an enfant terrible, while also getting receiving praise for his original compositions, which he would perform himself on the piano. In 1909, he graduated from his class in composition, getting less than impressive marks. He continued at the Conservatory, but now concentrated on playing the piano and conducting. His piano lessons went far from smoothly, but the composition classes made an impression on him. His teacher encouraged his musical experimentation, and his works from this period display more intensity than earlier ones.[10]

In 1910, Prokofiev's father died and Sergei's economic support ceased. Luckily, at that time, he had started making a name for himself as a composer, although he frequently caused scandals with his forward-looking works.[11] His first two piano concertos were composed around this time. He made his first excursion out of Russia in 1913, traveling to Paris and London where he first encountered Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

In 1914, Prokofiev left the Conservatory with the highest marks of his class, a feat which won him a grand piano. Soon afterwards, he made a trip to London where he made contact with Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky.

War and Revolution

During World War I, Prokofiev returned again to the Academy, now studying the organ. He composed his opera The Gambler based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Gambler, but the rehearsals were plagued by problems and the première scheduled for 1917 had to be cancelled because of the February Revolution. In the summer the same year, Prokofiev composed his first symphony, the Classical. This was his own name for the symphony which was written in the style that, according to Prokofiev, Joseph Haydn would have used if he had been alive at the time.[12] Hence, the symphony is more or less classical in style but incorporates more modern musical elements (see Neoclassicism). After a brief stay with his mother in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, because of worries of the enemy capturing Petrograd (the new name for Saint Petersburg), he returned in 1918, but he was now determined to leave Russia, at least temporarily.[13] In the current Russian state of unrest, he saw no room for his experimental music and, in May, he headed for the United States. Despite this, he had already developed acquaintances with senior Bolsheviks including Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar for Education, who told him: "You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way."[14]

Life abroad

Arriving in San Francisco, he was immediately compared to other famous Russian exiles (such as Sergei Rachmaninoff), and he started out successfully with a solo concert in New York, leading to several further engagements. He also received a contract for the production of his new opera The Love for Three Oranges but, due to illness and the death of the director, the premiere was cancelled. This was another example of Prokofiev's bad luck in operatic matters. The failure also cost him his American solo career, since the opera took too much time and effort. He soon found himself in financial difficulties, and, in April 1920, he left for Paris, not wanting to return to Russia as a failure.[15]

Paris was better prepared for Prokofiev's musical style. He renewed his contacts with the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and with Stravinsky, and returned to some of his older, unfinished works, such as the Third Piano Concerto. The Love for Three Oranges finally premièred in Chicago in December 1921, under the composer's baton. The work was performed throughout Europe in that time, and the reception was good thanks to the success in Chicago.[16].

In March 1922, Prokofiev moved with his mother to the town of Ettal in the Bavarian Alps for over a year so he could concentrate fully on his composing. Most of his time was spent on an old opera project, The Fiery Angel, based on the novel The Fiery Angel by Valery Bryusov. By this time his later music had acquired a certain following in Russia, and he received invitations to return there, but he decided to stay in Europe. In 1923, he married the Spanish singer Lina Llubera (1897-1989), before moving back to Paris.

There, a number of his works (for example the Second Symphony) were performed, but the critical reception was lukewarm,[17] perhaps because he could no longer really lay claim to being a "novelty." He did not particularly like Stravinsky's later works and, even though he was quite friendly with members of "Les Six," he musically had very little in common with them.

Around 1927, the virtuoso's situation brightened; he had some exciting commissions from Diaghilev and made a number of concert tours in Russia; in addition, he enjoyed a very successful staging of The Love for Three Oranges in Leningrad (as Saint Petersburg was then known). Two older operas (one of them The Gambler) were also played in Europe and in 1928 Prokofiev produced his Third Symphony, which was broadly based on his unperformed opera The Fiery Angel. The years 1931 and 1932 saw the completion of his fourth and fifth piano concertos.

In 1929, he suffered a car accident, which slightly injured his hands and prevented him from touring Moscow, but in turn permitted him to enjoy contemporary Russian music. After his hands healed, he made a new attempt at touring the United States, and this time he was received very warmly, propped up by his recent success in Europe. This, in turn, propelled him to commence a major tour throughout Europe.

In the early 1930s, Prokofiev was starting to long for Russia again;[18] he moved more and more of his premieres and commissions to his home country instead of Paris. One such was Lieutenant Kije, which was commissioned as the score to a Russian film. Another commission, from the Kirov Theater in Leningrad, was the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Prokofiev was soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Piero Coppola, in the first recording of his third piano concerto, recorded in London by His Master's Voice in June 1932. The recording has exceptionally clear sound and Prokofiev's own virtuosic performance remains very impressive. Prokofiev also recorded some of his solo piano music for HMV in Paris in February 1935; these recordings were issued on CD by Pearl and Naxos.[19] In 1938, he conducted the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in a recording of the second suite from his Romeo and Juliet ballet; this performance was also later released on LP and CD. Another reported recording with Prokofiev and the Moscow Philharmonic was of the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh as soloist; Everest Records later released this recording on a LP, along with a performance of Khachaturian's violin concerto with that composer conducting the Philharmonic with much inferior sound compared to the EMI recording with Khachaturian and Oistrakh.[20]

Return to Soviet Union

In 1935, Prokofiev moved back to the Soviet Union permanently; his family joined him a year later. At this time, the official Soviet policy towards music changed; a special bureau, the "Composers' Union," was established in order to keep track of the artists and their activities. By limiting outside influences, these policies would gradually cause almost complete isolation of Soviet composers from the rest of the world. Willing to adapt to the new circumstances (whatever misgivings he had about them in private), Prokofiev wrote a series of "mass songs" (Opp. 66, 79, 89), using the lyrics of officially approved Soviet poets, and also the oratorio Zdravitsa (Hail to Stalin) (Op. 85), which secured his position as a Soviet composer and put an end to his persecution. At the same time Prokofiev also composed music for children (Three Songs for Children and Peter and the Wolf, among other) as well as the gigantic Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, which was, however, never performed. The première of the opera Semyon Kotko was postponed because the producer Vsevolod Meyerhold was imprisoned and executed.

In 1938, Prokofiev collaborated with the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein on the score to the historical epic Alexander Nevsky. For this he composed some of his most inventive dramatic music. Although the film had very poor sound recording, Prokofiev adapted much of his score into a cantata, which has been extensively performed and recorded.

In 1941, Prokofiev suffered the first of several heart attacks, resulting in a gradual decline in health. Because of the war, he was periodically evacuated to the south together with a large number of other artists. This had consequences for his family life in Moscow, and his relationship with the 25-year-old Mira Mendelson (1915-1968) finally led to his separation from his wife Lina, although they remained married with no talk of divorce. (Marriage to foreigners had been made illegal in the Soviet Union, although the USSR had recognized their marriage by granting them both apartments when they returned.)

The outbreak of war inspired Prokofiev to a new opera project, War and Peace, which he worked on for two years, along with more film music for Sergei Eisenstein (Ivan the Terrible) and the second string quartet. However, the Soviet government had opinions about the opera which resulted in numerous revisions. [21] In 1944, Prokofiev moved to an estate outside of Moscow, to compose his Fifth Symphony (Op. 100) which would turn out to be the most popular of all his symphonies, both within Russia and abroad.[22] Shortly afterwards, he suffered a concussion from a fall. He never fully recovered from this injury, and it severely lowered his productivity rate in later years, though some of his last pieces were as fine as anything he had composed before.[23]

Prokofiev had time to write his postwar Sixth Symphony and a ninth piano sonata (for Sviatoslav Richter) before the Party suddenly changed its opinion about his music.[24] The end of the war allowed attention to be turned inwards again and the Party tightened its reins on domestic artists. Prokofiev's music was now seen as a grave example of formalism, and dangerous to the Soviet people.

On February 20, 1948, Prokofiev's wife Lina was arrested for 'espionage', as she tried to send money to her mother in Catalonia. She was sentenced to 20 years, but was eventually released after Stalin's death and later left the Soviet Union. 1948 was the same year that Prokofiev left his family for Mira.

His latest opera projects were quickly cancelled by the Kirov Theatre. This snub, in combination with his declining health, caused Prokofiev to withdraw more and more from active musical life. His doctors ordered him to limit his activities, which resulted in him spending only an hour or two each day on composition. The last public performance of his lifetime was the première of the Seventh Symphony in 1952, a piece of somewhat bittersweet character.[25] The music was written for a children's television program.

Igor Stravinsky characterized him as the greatest Russian composer of his day, other than Stravinsky himself.[26]

A Soviet stamp marking Prokofiev's centenary in 1991

Prokofiev died at the age of 61 on March 5, 1953: the same day as Stalin. He had lived near Red Square, and for three days the throngs gathered to mourn Stalin making it impossible to carry Prokofiev's body out for the funeral service at the headquarters of the Soviet Composer's Union. Paper flowers and a taped recording of the funeral march from Romeo and Juliet had to be used, as all real flowers and musicians were reserved for Stalin's funeral. He is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.[27]

The leading Soviet musical periodical reported Prokofiev's death as a brief item on page 116. The first 115 pages were devoted to the death of Stalin. Usually Prokofiev's death is attributed to cerebral haemorrhage (bleeding into the brain). Nevertheless it is known that he was persistently ill for eight years before he died, and was plagued during that length of time by headaches, nausea and dizziness[28], the precise nature of Prokofiev's terminal illness is uncertain.

Lina Prokofieva outlived her estranged husband by many years, dying in London in early 1989. Royalties from her late husband's music provided her a modest income. Their sons Sviatoslav (born 1924), an architect, and Oleg (1928-1998), an artist, painter, sculptor and poet, have dedicated a large part of their lives to the promotion of their father's life and work.[29] [30]


Prokofiev was the composer of numerous popular works. Among his best known works are the children's tale, "Peter and the Wolf," his film scores for two of the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, and his ballet, "Romeo and Juliet," which contains some of the most inspired and poignant passages in his whole output.[31] However, there were numerous political and choreographic problems, and the premiere was postponed for several years.

The ballet was thought to have been composed around 1935 or 1936, on commission by the Kirov Ballet. The original version had a "happy" ending, but was never publicly mounted, partly due to increased fear and caution in the musical and theatrical community in the aftermath of the two notorious Pravda editorials criticizing Shostakovich and other "degenerate modernists." Suites of the ballet music were heard in Moscow and the United States, but the full ballet premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia, on 30 December 1938. It is better known today from the significantly revised version that was first presented at the Kirov in Leningrad on January 11, 1940, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky. Prokofiev objected to this version.


Like many Soviet artists, Prokofiev had troubles with the authorities over his style of music. He was one of the targets of the Zhdanov Doctrine (also called zhdanovism or zhdanovschina, Russian: доктрина Жданова, ждановизм, ждановщина)–a Soviet cultural doctrine developed by the Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov in 1946. It proposed that the world was divided into two camps: the imperialistic, headed by the United States; and democratic, headed by the Soviet Union. Zhdanovism soon became a Soviet cultural policy, requiring that Soviet artists, writers and intelligentsia in general had to conform to the party line in their creative works. Under this policy, artists who failed to comply with the government's wishes risked persecution. The policy remained in effect until 1952, when it was declared that it had a negative effect on Soviet culture.

The first decree was largely aimed at writers. A further decree was issued on 10 February 1948. Although formally aimed at Vano Muradeli's opera The Great Friendship, it signaled a sustained campaign of criticism and persecution against many of the Soviet Union's foremost composers, notably Dmitri Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian. They were accused of formalism and being "anti-popular."


Important works include (in chronological order):

  • Toccata in D minor, Op. 11, for piano
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
  • Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19
  • Scythian Suite, Op. 20, suite for orchestra
  • Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, set of twenty piano pieces
  • Symphony No. 1 in D major Classical, Op. 25, the first definitive neo-classical composition
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26
  • The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33, opera in four acts, includes the famous March from the Love for Three Oranges
  • The Fiery Angel, Op. 37, opera in five acts
  • Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40
  • Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44
  • String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, Op. 50
  • Symphonic Song, Op. 57
  • Lieutenant Kije, Op. 60, suite for orchestra, includes the famous Troika
  • Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
  • Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64, ballet in four acts
  • Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67, a children's tale for narrator and orchestra
  • Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78, cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra
  • Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80
  • The three so-called War Sonatas:
    • Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82
    • Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83
    • Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat major, Op. 84
  • Cinderella, Op. 87, ballet in three acts
  • War and Peace, Op. 91, opera in thirteen scenes
  • String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op.92
  • Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100
  • Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op. 111
  • Ivan the Terrible, Op. 116, music for Eisenstein's classic film of the same name.
  • The Tale of the Stone Flower, Op. 118, ballet in two acts
  • Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor, Op. 125, written for Mstislav Rostropovich
  • Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131


Autobiography and diaries

His autobiography was published in English as Prokofiev: Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences. ISBN 0898751497

The first volume of Prokofiev's diaries was translated into English by Anthony Phillips and published by Faber and Faber in 2006.


  • David Nice
  • Daniel Jaffe
  • Harlow Robinson
  • Israel Nestjev
  • Simon Morrison
  • Piero Rattalino

Music Analyses

  • Stephen C. I. Fiess
  • Neil Minturn


  1. While Prokofiev himself believed April 23 to be his birth date, the posthumous discovery of his birth certificate showed that he was actually born four days later, on April 27. Nicolas Slonimsky. The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993), 793
  3. Phil Tulga, 2006, "He was a child prodigy on the order of Mozart, composing for piano at age five and writing an opera at nine." Peter and the Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  4. Paul Shoemaker, [1]. Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  5. "The year was 1904, Prokofiev was thirteen, and it was clear to Maria Grigoryevna that the geographical isolation of Sontsovka was not conducive to the development of her son's burgeoning musical potential." [2] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  6. "In fact, Prokofiev's parents focused most of his educational energies on non-musical subjects, particularly mathematics and the sciences." [3] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  7. Alexander Glazunov (1865 - 1936)
  8. Robert Layton, "Prokofiev's Demonic Opera" Found in the introductory notes to the Philips Label recording of The Fiery Angel
  9. "His memoirs indicate that even in his early Conservatory years he was self-confident, generally critical of his fellow students, yet disapproving of criticism he often received from his teachers. His unfailing belief in his own innovative musical style and his criticism of fellow students was interpreted as arrogance by many around him. This arrogance and propensity to shock his teachers with his music earned him the reputation as an 'enfant terrible'—a label Prokofiev actually enjoyed." [4] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  10. "During this time his works are characterized by continued brilliance at the piano (e.g. Piano Concertos No. 1 & 2, Toccata Op. 11 in D Minor), and a struggle to master new forms (the one-act opera Maddalena, and several sketches for Orchestra including Autumnal and Dreams)" [5] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  11. "In contrast to other composers such as Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky who wilted under critical assaults, Prokofiev welcomed the disapproving reviews. Throughout his career, in fact he would purposely push the limits of his compositions, all the while provoking and shocking listeners and critics. He relished his role as 'enfant terrible' of the music world." [6] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  12. As detailed in Prokofiev's autobiography. Listen to Discovering Music from 1:00 to 3:02, particularly from 1:45 to 2:39 BBC Radio. Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  13. "Prokofiev knew his prospects were much brighter in Western Europe. Blocked from heading west by war, Prokofiev headed east instead, toward the Pacific port of Vladivostock." [7] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  14. Sergei Prokofiev and S. Shlifstein (ed.) & Rose Prokofieva (translator). Sergei Prokofiev: Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences. (The Minerva Group, Inc. (1960) 2000. ISBN 0898751497), 50
  15. "Having avoided returning to Russia, Prokofiev asked his mother, who was in poor health, to join him in Paris." [8] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  16. "When The Love for Three Oranges finally did premiere in Chicago in December 1920, it was an immediate hit. So successful was the reception in fact, that it was staged in opera houses throughout Europe." [9] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  17. "While the Second Symphony is more remembered for its inauspicious debut, it did have a few supporters." [10] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  18. "While his notoriety grew in Europe, Prokofiev longed to return to his homeland" [11] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  19. Pearl Records, Naxos Records,
  20. Everest Records, EMI
  21. "Prokofiev wrote the first version of "War and Peace" during the Second World War. He revised it in the late forties and early fifties, during the period of the 1948 Zhdanov Decree, which attacked obscurantist tendencies in the music of leading Soviet composers." [12] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  22. "It quickly emerged as his most popular symphony and has remained to this day one of his greatest orchestral works." [13] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  23. "Prokofiev never fully recovered from this accident, although the greatness of works which were to follow gave no indication of it." [14] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  24. "This orgy of government denouncements, censorship, and intimidation became known as Zhdanovshchina ('Zhdanov's Terror'.) Prokofiev became the target in early 1948. Zhdanov denounced Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khatchaturian among other composers, as too cosmopolitan and formalist." [15] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  25. The Seventh Symphony is variously viewed as overly simplistic or banal by its critics, but with dark emotions beneath the surface.
  26. Martin Kettle, First among equals. The Guardian (UK), September 19, 2008
  27. "Prokofiev's body was later buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow." [16] Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  28. C.M. Hingtgen, Semin Neurol. 19 Suppl 1 (1999) :59-61 The tragedy of Sergei Prokofiev. - PubMed Result.pubmed. Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  29. Geoffrey Norris, January 23, 2003, Fifty years after the death of composer Sergei Prokofiev, Geoffrey Norris talks to his son and to Vladimir Ashkenazy, 'My father was naïve'. Telegraph (UK). Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  30. Obituary: Oleg Prokofiev | Independent, The (London) | Find Articles at Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  31. "Now his most celebrated work has been given a new lease of life." The dictator's cut: Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet' Independent (UK). Retrieved September 20, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Shlifstein, S. & Rose Prokofieva, (translator), Sergei Prokofiev, [1960] (2000). Sergei Prokofiev: Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, ISBN 0898751497.
  • Slonimsky, Nicolas. The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993. ISBN 002872416X
  • Taruskin, Richard. "Prokofiev, Sergei" The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. ed. Stanley Sadie. London: 1992. ISBN 0333734327.

External links

All links retrieved January 26, 2023.


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