Sergei Prokofiev

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Prokofiev, Sergei Sergeevich

 

Born Apr. 11 (23), 1891, in Sontsovka, now the village of Krasnoe, Krasnoarmeisk Raion, Donetsk Oblast; died Mar. 5, 1953, in Moscow. Soviet composer, pianist, and conductor. People’s Artist of the RSFSR (1947).

The son of an agronomist, Prokofiev began to study music at the age of five under the supervision of his mother. In the summers of 1902 and 1903 he studied under R. M. Glière, who came to Sontsovka to give him lessons.

By the time Prokofiev entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory (1904), he had composed four operas, a symphony, two sonatas, and piano pieces. In 1909 he graduated from the conservatory’s class in composition, which was taught by A. K. Liadov, N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov, and J. Vĭtols. He graduated in 1914 from the classes in conducting and piano, having studied under N. N. Cherepnin and A. N. Esipova, respectively. Prokofiev’s lifelong artistic friendship with N. Ia. Miaskovskii began during their years at the conservatory.

Prokofiev developed as a composer during a contradictory, complex period marked by an intensive quest for new themes and expressive means in all the arts. Although he paid close attention to new trends and felt their influence to some extent, Prokofiev also strove for independence and originality. During the prerevolutionary decade he composed in virtually every genre. Many of his compositions were for piano, including two concerti (1912; 1913, second version 1923), four sonatas, cycles (Sarcasms and Visions fugitives), and toccatas. In addition, during this period he wrote two operas (Magdalen, 1913, and The Gambler, based on a story by F. M. Dostoevsky, 1915–16; second version, 1927), as well as the ballet The Buffoon (1915–20), the Classical Symphony (the Symphony No. 1, 1916–17), the first concerto for violin (1921), and choral and vocal chamber works.

The characteristic features of Prokofiev’s artistry were already evident in this early period—an active attitude toward life, optimism, energy, and a strong will. In his works there is a broad range of themes and images, from the delicate lyricism of art songs with words by A. A. Akhmatova (1916) to the strained expressiveness of The Gambler, from the pictorial, poetic quality of The Ugly Duckling, a fairy tale for voice and piano (1914), to the elemental power of the orchestral Scythian Suite (1914–15); and from the pointed grotesqueness of the Sarcasms to the fairy-tale jesting of the ballet The Buffoon. From 1908, Prokofiev appeared regularly as a pianist and conductor, performing his own works. In the spring of 1918 he traveled to the USA by way of Japan. His stay abroad lasted 15 years, instead of the few months he had originally intended. During the first four years he traveled in America and Europe (primarily France), participating in the production of his stage works and taking on a greatly expanded concert schedule. He lived in Germany in 1922 and in Paris from 1923.

Prokofiev’s years abroad were marked by an active interest in theatrical genres. Among the operas dating from this period of his career are The Flaming Angel (1919–27), an expressive drama based on a novel by V. Ia. Briusov, and The Love for Three Oranges (1919), a comic opera based on a work by C. Gozzi. Prokofiev had outlined a plan for The Love for Three Oranges before he went abroad. Inspired by his creative collaboration with S. P. Diaghilev, who staged The Buffoon in 1921, Prokofiev created new ballets for Diaghilev’s troupe—The Steel Trot (1925) and The Prodigal Son (1928). In 1930 he wrote the ballet On the Dnieper for the Grand Opera in Paris.

Prokofiev’s most important instrumental works of this period were the fifth sonata for piano (1924), the third and fourth symphonies (1928, 1930–47), and the third, fourth, and fifth piano concerti (1917–21, 1931, and 1932). The composer’s creativity declined during the last years of his stay abroad, and his long isolation from his homeland became evident in his work. “Russian speech must sound in my ears; I must speak with people of my flesh and blood so that they may return to me what I lack here: their songs, my own songs” (Sergei Prokof’ev: Stat’i i materialy, 1965, p. 377).

Prokofiev toured the USSR in 1927 and 1929 and in 1932 decided to return to his homeland for good, joining those who were actively engaged in building Soviet musical culture. Beginning in 1933, he gave lessons in composition for a number of years at the Master School at the Moscow Conservatory. His work flowered during this period, enriched by significant new themes and lofty humanist ideas. In the ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935–36), an outstanding achievement of Soviet and world art, the composer created images of Shakespearean depth and realistic power. The opera Semen Kotko, which was based on V. P. Kataev’s story I Am the Son of the Working People (1930), boldly and in many respects successfully resolved the difficult problem of assimilating contemporary themes in an operatic work. During the prewar years compositions for the theater and motion pictures held an important place in Prokofiev’s work. The composer collaborated with the greatest Soviet directors—V. E. Meyerhold, A. Ia. Tairov, and S. M. Eisenstein. Among Prokofiev’s most significant works was the music for the motion picture Alexander Nevsky, which served as the basis for the cantata of the same name. Turning to popular historical and patriotic themes, the composer revealed and strengthened the national foundation of his work. This foundation was vividly revealed in subsequent works, such as the cantata The Toast (1939, based on folk texts) and the music for the motion picture Ivan the Terrible (1942–45; a ballet based on M. I. Chulaki’s version of the score was staged in 1975 at the Bolshoi Theater). During the 1930’s, Prokofiev also wrote works for children, including songs, a collection of piano pieces entitled Children’s Suite (1935), and Peter and the Wolf (1936), a symphonic tale for narrator and orchestra—a witty, lively, graphic work that acquaints children with the timbres of various instruments.

Prokofiev attained a new level of creativity in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, when he began working almost simultaneously on a series of compositions: a sonata for violin and piano, three sonatas for piano (the sixth, seventh, and eighth), the lyric comic opera Betrothal in a Monastery (based on R. B. Sheridan’s play The Duenna), and the ballet Cinderella (State Prize of the USSR, 1946). The completion of most of these works was delayed by the Great Patriotic War. Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace (1941–52, based on L. N. Tolstoy’s novel) is his most important work of the war years, as well as one of the central works of his career and the greatest achievement of Soviet operatic art. The theme of war was also reflected in other works, including the seventh piano sonata (1939–42; State Prize of the USSR, 1943) and the fifth and sixth symphonies (1944 and 1945–47). Prokofiev’s last opera, The Story of a Real Man (1947–48, based on a work by B. N. Polevoi), was also associated with the theme of war.

During the postwar years Prokofiev’s work was characterized by particular clarity, classic harmony, and wise simplicity. Light lyrical or fantastic images became increasingly important in his work (the ninth sonata for piano, 1947, and the sonata for cello and piano, 1949). The themes of childhood and youth continued to attract the composer’s attention, as is evident in the vocal symphonic suite Winter Bonfire (1949) and the oratorio Guarding the Peace (1950; texts by S. Ia. Marshak), both of which were awarded the State Prize of the USSR in 1951; the ballet The Stone Flower (1948–50, based on tales by P. P. Bazhov); and the seventh symphony (1951–52), for which Prokofiev was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1957. (He was the first Soviet composer to receive this honor.)

In 1946, Prokofiev was awarded the State Prize of the USSR for the fifth symphony, the eighth sonata for piano, and the music for the first part of the motion picture Ivan the Terrible. He won the State Prize of the USSR again in 1947 for his first sonata for violin and piano.

Prokofiev is important in the history of Soviet and world music as an innovative composer who created a profoundly original style and forged his own expressive means. Activity and energy were, to the highest degree, characteristic of his work. The epic principle prevailed in his creative work. Striking individuality was characteristic of his melodies, which were inspired, profound, and, at the same time, internally restrained and crystalline. Prokofiev’s close ties with the traditions of Russian music and with composers such as M. P. Mussorgsky, A. P. Borodin, and N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov became more and more evident as his work developed. His keen powers of observation made him one of the foremost masters of the musical portrait, in which he combined physical characterization with psychological insight. This gift predetermined the primary role of the stage genres in Prokofiev’s work. The composer strove for realism on the stage and tried to transcend the static quality and conventionalities of opera and ballet. He significantly strengthened the role of pantomime in ballet, and in opera he rejected verse librettos, replacing them with prose texts. He substantially enriched the vocal expressiveness of opera, making extensive use of recitation based on a flexible imitation of the intonations of speech.

The full exploitation of the drama’s range was characteristic of Prokofiev’s operas. For example, War and Peace combines features of the lyric, psychological drama and the heroic folk epic. Prokofiev’s piano works are an important part of his artistic legacy. These works, which revealed his pianistic art in a distinctive manner, were marked by structural sharpness of form and texture, clarity of resonance, an instrumental treatment of the piano’s timbre, and resilient, energetic rhythm. Prokofiev’s proclivity for epics was reflected in his symphonic works (symphonies, overtures, and suites) and vocal symphonic works (oratorios and cantatas), most of which were characterized by objectivity, a narrative tone, and dramatic art based not on the clash between contrasting images but on their juxtaposition.

Prokofiev’s work constitutes an epoch in world music of the 20th century. New trends in music were launched by the originality of his musical thought and by the fresh, distinctive quality of his melodies, harmonics, rhythmics, and instrumentation. Prokofiev powerfully influenced the work of many Soviet and foreign composers. Between 1955 and 1967, 20 volumes of his collected musical compositions were published.

Prokofiev was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

WORKS

Avtobiografiia. Moscow, 1973.

REFERENCES

Igor’ Glebov [Asaf’ev, B. V.]. Sergei Prokof’ev, Leningrad, 1927.
S. S. Prokof’ev: Materialy, dokumenty, vospominaniia, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1961.
Cherty stilia S. Prokof’eva (collection). Moscow, 1962.
Sabinina, M. “Semen Kotko” i problemy opernoi dramaturgii Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1963.
Rogozhina, N. Vokal’no-simfonicheskie proizvedeniia S. Prokof’eva. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964.
Rogozhina, N. Romansy i pesni S. S. Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1971.
Sergei Prokof’ev: Stat’i i materialy, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1965.
Kholopov, Iu. Sovremennye cherty garmonii Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1967.
Slonimskii, S. Simfonii Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1964.
Tarakanov, M. Stil’ simfonii Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1968.
Tarakanov, M. “Spisok literatury po teme ‘Prokof’ev.’” In the collection Muzykal’nyi sovremennik, fasc. 1. Moscow, 1973.
Aranovskii, M. Melodika S. Prokof’eva. Leningrad, 1969.
Stepanov, O. Teatr masok v opere S. Prokof’eva “Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam.” Moscow, 1972.
Blok, V. Violonchel’noe tvorchestvo Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1973.
Soroker, Ia. Kamerno-instrumental’nye ansambli S. Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1973.
Del’son, V. Fortepiannoe tvorchestvo i pianizm Prokof’eva. Moscow, 1973.
Nest’ev, I. Zhizn’Sergeia Prokof’eva, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1973.

O. B. STEPANOV