Composer SERGEI SERGEYEVICH PROKOFIEV
The transformation of Sergei Prokofiev from the enfant terrible of the Russian and European avant garde to a composer of conservative, tonal, often melodious scores spans five decades,
two continents, social and political upheavals, and bureaucratic control of the arts. That Prokofiev managed to remain an original, often strikingly flamboyant creative voice was a tribute
to his artistic genius.
Prokofiev was a precocious, exceptionally gifted child. For two years (beginning in 1902) he received piano and composition lessons from Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956), a composer of colorful ballet scores and ambitious symphonies. Prokofiev was accepted by the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1904 - the youngest student ever admitted to that institution. His composition teachers were Alexander Glazunov (who also taught Shostakovich), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Anatol Liadov - conservatives deeply influenced by the pioneering Russian nationalism of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857). Prokofiev's modernist tendencies earned the disapproval of his traditionalist teachers and fellow students. He actually enjoyed his notoriety as an artistic nonconformist and enfant terrible. In 1906 he befriended Nikolai Miaskovsky, a fellow student. Like Prokofiev Miaskovsky was disenchanted with the 19th century bent of the Conservatory faculty. He shared his enthusiasm for the music of Max Reger, Igor Stravinsky, and Alexander Scriabin - composers who chose to reinvent Russian musical tradition rather than follow it. The friendship between Prokofiev and Miaskovsky would last four decades.
On December 18, 1908 Prokofiev made his public debut as a concert pianist at one of the "Evenings of Contemporary Music" concerts in St. Petersburg. This series featured scores by such avant garde composers as Stravinsky, Popov, and Miaskovsky. Prokofiev performed his own compositions. He continued to play regularly at this cutting edge concert series and attracted the attention of musicians and critics throughout Europe. In 1909 Prokofiev completed his composition courses (to the relief of his teachers) but was invited back to study piano and conducting. From 1909 until 1914 he studied piano with Nikolai Tcherepnin who would become a major artistic influence. Prokofiev considered his First Piano concerto to be his "first more or less mature composition as regards to conception and fulfillment." The score's musical sweep and pianistic complexities were clearly the work of an "original" creative mind. The composer premiered the work on August 7, 1912 in the Moscow suburb of Sokolniki. The score was enthusiastically hailed by the public but received vitriolic reviews from the uncomprehending critics. Less than one month later Prokofiev premiered his Second Piano Concerto in Pavlosk on September 5, 1912. This work's tonal ambiguities, pounding rhythms, and daunting technical requirements were even more outside the traditional 19th century musical canon - definitely a work of the 20th century, unabashedly avant garde. Russian critic N. Bernstein described the score as "a cacophony of sounds that has nothing in common with civilized music."
When the 22 year old Prokofiev entered his 10th and final term at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he had one goal in mind - the Anton Rubinstein Prize awarded to the best student pianist. Throwing caution to the winds Prokofiev performed his First Piano Concerto. After a lengthy deliberation the 20 jurors (all members of the Conservatory faculty) awarded the Prize to Prokofiev. Without brokering artistic compromise he had won one of Russia's ultimate musical honors on his terms. Prokofiev had remained true to his own creative principles.
The dominant artistic figures of the new Russian avant garde were Igor Stravinsky and the impresario Sergei Diaghilev who had launched his Ballet Russes in Paris. The excitement of the premieres of Stravinsky's "The Firebird" and "Petrouchka" turned into one of music history's true grand scandals when a riot broke out at the Paris premiere of "Le Sacre de Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring") in 1913. Fascinated by that artistic milieu and eager to become part of it, Prokofiev made his first trip to the West. He met Diaghilev in London in 1914. After hearing the composer play his bracing Second Piano Concerto, the impresario commissioned Prokofiev to write an original ballet score. He spent most of the following year working on "Ala and Lolli." With its harsh dissonance and experiments with atonality, Prokofiev hoped to shock the public in a manner similar to "The Rite of Spring." When he presented a draft of the score to Diaghilev, the impresario rejected it. (He did not want to repeat the furor that accompanied the premiere of the Stravinsky-Nijinsky ballet.) He did, however, commission Prokofiev to compose another ballet. While fulfilling that assignment ("Chout - The Tale of the Buffoon") Prokofiev decided to rescue the music from the rejected work. The result was the "Scythian Suite" - a landmark Prokofiev score. At the premiere on January 29, 1916 in St. Petersburg, the composer's former teacher Glazunov walked out in disgust. Prokofiev had developed a fervent public following and the new work was cheered vociferously by the audience. That the critics hated the music only emboldened the composer.
While Prokofiev had managed to ignore World War 1 and its upheavals, the events of 1917 could not be ignored. Czar Nicholas 2nd was overthrown. St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd and became the headquarters of the October Revolution which swept Vladimir Lenin into power. Russia was now the capital of the new Soviet Union. Five years of civil war (and an attempted invasion by Western powers) would ensue. Needing tranquility to work Prokofiev spent most of 1917 in the Caucasus. This proved to be one of his most productive periods. He completed the opera "The Gambler" (based on the novel by Dostoevsky) - a commission from the Maryinsky Theater. He also wrote the soaring Violin Concerto No.1, two piano sonatas, and the witty "Classical Symphony." At that work's premiere in Petrograd in 1918, the new Soviet officials joined the audience in warmly receiving this neo-classical masterpiece. The composer also began work on his Third Piano Concerto.
Despite his success Prokofiev could not ignore the chaos that was engulfing Russia as a result of the civil war. With conditions rapidly deteriorating the composer left Russia in May 1918 via the Pacific port of Vladivostock. After stops in Japan (where he played several recitals) and Hawaii Prokofiev arrived in San Francisco in August, 1918. He arrived in New York in September. His first recital on November 20, 1918 was panned by the critics but well received by much of the public. Music producers took note. Prokofiev made several piano roll recordings and wrote several short piano pieces that were suitable for students. An insurance company commissioned him to write an "American Overture." One of the greatest triumphs of his American tour occurred in Chicago in 1918 when his performances of the First Piano Concerto and "Scythian Suite" with the Chicago Symphony were enthusiastically cheered. (Under its founder Theodore Thomas and his successor Frederick Stock, the Chicago Symphony had become the orchestra of choice for new scores by American, Russian, and European composers.) The Chicago Opera commissioned Prokofiev to write a new full length work. (After the satirical opera "The Love for Three Oranges" was premiered in 1920 in Chicago, opera houses throughout Europe would soon stage the work.) Following a New York concert in 1919, Prokofiev met the soprano Carolina Codina (also known by her stage name Lina Llubera), his future wife.
The musical climate (particularly among the conservative critics) in New York proved inhospitable for Prokofiev. In the spring of 1920 he sailed to Paris to recommence negotiations with Diaghilev. The Ballet Russes gave the premiere of "Chout" in May, 1921. Despite a warm public response, the critics treated the work harshly. The score won several important new converts for the composer. Henri Matisse, Maurice Ravel, and Pablo Picasso were among the work's admirers. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Paris premiere of the "Scythian Suite" at his Concerts Koussevitzky (a repository of the musical avant garde) in 1921.
In September of 1923 Prokofiev and Lina were married. On February 27, 1924 Lina gave birth to their first son Sviatoslav. Koussevitzky's Paris concerts featured the premieres of the First Violin Concerto (surprisingly coolly received by the Parisian audience) and the Symphonic Suite from "The Love for Three Oranges." Koussevitzky commissioned the composer to write a new symphony. At the premiere on June 6, 1925 in Paris, the Second Symphony was a failure. Prokofiev wrote "There were too many layers of counterpoint that degenerated into mere figuration…This was perhaps the first time it appeared to me that I might be destined to be a second rate composer." The French composer Francis Poulenc (of "Les Six") liked the modernist score and so did Diaghilev. The impresario offered a new commission. Prokofiev obliged with the ultra modern "Le Pas d'Acier" ("The Steel Step"), written during concert tours of the United States and Italy (in 1925 and 1926) that Prokofiev gave with Lina.
Miaskovsky had kept in contact with Prokofiev. He reported that Prokofiev's works were being played with great success in concert halls throughout the Soviet Union and urged the composer to return to his homeland. Disillusioned with being in the shadow of Stravinsky in Paris, Prokofiev decided to test the waters. He made a two and a half month tour of the Soviet Union in January, 1927. Enthusiastic audiences packed concert halls wherever he played. He was acclaimed as a Russian cultural hero whose revolutionary music was celebrated in the West. While this nationalist view was inflated, the composer was certain that one day he would return home permanently.
When Prokofiev returned to Paris Koussevitzky urged him to turn his unproduced opera "The Fiery Angel" into a symphonic work. While he worked on what turned out to be his Third Symphony, his second son Oleg was born on December 14, 1928. The legendary French conductor Pierre Monteux led the premiere of the Third Symphony on May 27, 1929. The work was a resounding success (even with the critics). Prokofiev noted "I have succeeded in deepening my musical language." (Several seasons ago, performances by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony revealed the Third Symphony to be a neglected masterpiece. It is a score that requires a conductor of vaulting brilliance and interpretive imagination. This work deserves continued revivals.) Also in 1929 Diaghilev commissioned Prokofiev to write a new ballet "The Prodigal Son" - collaboration with the brilliant young choreographer George Balanchine. This score fused Prokofiev's avant garde tendencies with a new melodic simplicity. The music of the final scene is deeply moving. The work's successful premiere was overshadowed by Diaghilev's death (in Venice) two
months later. Prokofiev incorporated some of the score of "The Prodigal Son" into his
Fourth Symphony. That work received a tepid reception when Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony in the first performance on November 14, 1930.
In 1930 Prokofiev made an extensive tour of the United States, Canada, and Cuba. The tremendous success of that tour was capped by a commission from the Library of Congress. The resulting score - the "String Quartet No.1," Opus 50 - is one of the composer's finest chamber music works. (This score brings up an obvious question: When was the last time the Library of Congress commissioned a serious piece of music?) When he returned to Europe Prokofiev faced a series of failures. His ballet "On the Dneiper" was unsuccessful at the Paris Opera in 1932. The left handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein rejected Prokofiev's Fourth Piano Concerto which he had commissioned. (The work was never performed during the composer's lifetime.) The melodically obscure, rhythmically complex Fifth Piano Concerto was premiered on October 31, 1932 by Prokofiev with the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwangler. While the composer was pleased with the reception, the work was not played again for a decade. In the 1940's the young Russian virtuoso Sviatoslav Richter embraced the difficult score. (Richter considered the 5th Concerto to be Prokofiev's greatest piano-orchestral work.)
A successful tour of the Soviet Union convinced Prokofiev that it was time to return home. Although he divided his time between Paris and Moscow between 1933 and 1936, increasingly Prokofiev's commissions came from the Soviet Union. In a recent interview the composer's son Sviatoslav Prokofiev (now a distinguished architect) commented that Prokofiev was dying creatively in Paris. The popularity of Stravinsky had forced Prokofiev to compose music ever more harsh in its modernism. He longed to write with greater simplicity and directness of utterance. Sviatoslav believes that he could not have done that without returning to his native country. The works written during his period of dual residency reflect a new lyricism and elegance - the ballet "Romeo and Juliet"; the Violin Concerto No.2 (a great success when premiered by the French violinist Robert Soetans in Madrid in December, 1935); and the wonderfully sarcastic film score "Lieutenant Kije." All of these scores are a far cry from the jagged rhythms and acerbic thematic material of the 4th and 5th Piano Concertos.
In 1936 Prokofiev, joined by Lina, Sviatoslav, and Oleg, permanently moved to his Moscow apartment. The composer began an epic collaboration with the great film maker Sergei Eisenstein. Prokofiev's scores for Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" (1941) and Parts 1 and 2 of "Ivan the Terrible" (1942-45) set new standards for the integration of music and the visual image. Prokofiev and Eisenstein conceived these films as grandly cinematic operatic spectacles. He also contributed important scores for the theater - the colorful and evocative "Egyptian Nights" (1934); "Boris Godunov" and "Eugene Onegin" (both in 1936). For the Moscow Central Children's Theater he composed "Peter and the Wolf" (in just four days). The composer described the first performance in Moscow on May 2, 1936 as "inauspicious at best"; adding that the work "failed to attract much attention." Today "Peter and the Wolf" has come to be regarded as a true children's classic!
After Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939, relations were severed with the West. Prokofiev could no longer tour outside of the Soviet Union. The composer set about writing an ambitious series of works in 1939: three piano sonatas; the "Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Minor" (written for David Oistrakh); and the opera "Semyon Kotko." In 1940 Prokofiev wrote his final completed opera "The Duenna" ("Betrothal in a Monastery"), an almost Italianate comedia del arte. Due to the outbreak of the war, the work was not staged until 1946. The composer's attempt at an unusual genre was a great success within the Soviet Union. Significantly, Prokofiev's co-librettist on "The Duenna" was the poet Mira Mendelssohn. (They had first met in 1938. At that time, Ms. Mendelssohn was twenty three years old.) She would collaborate with him on his ambitious, epic operatic version of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and several patriotic works. In no small way, she would become an increasingly important part of his life.
In the spring of 1941 Prokofiev suffered a heart attack. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941 was a shock to most Russians. Stalin ordered all major cultural figures out of Moscow. Prokofiev was to evacuate to the Caucasus. Mira Mendelssohn was evacuated with him. Lina stayed behind in their Moscow apartment with their two sons. During this wartime period, Prokofiev was ever more prolific. He began work (with Mira Mendelssohn) on "War and Peace." (At the composer's death, the opera remained in a disorganized, if performable state.) He also wrote the three great War piano sonatas (Nos. 6, 7, and 8); the ballet "Cinderella"; the String Quartet No.2; the Sonata for Flute and Piano (and a transcription of that score for violin at the request of David Oistrakh); and the Fifth Symphony - one of his greatest orchestral works. Miaskovsky, a stern critic, pronounced the 2nd String Quartet "magnificent music." The great Sviatoslav Richter's premiere of the bracing 7th Piano Sonata in 1943 was a stunning success. Prokofiev received his first Stalin Prize for the work. In 1944 the young Emil Gilels premiered the 8th Piano Sonata - the most complex of the wartime cycle. The premiere of "Cinderella" at the Bolshoi Theater in 1945 was a triumph for the legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova, already famous as Juliet in the Prokofiev-Lavrovsky ballet. About the 5th Symphony, Prokofiev noted "The Fifth Symphony completes a long period of my works. I conceived it as a symphony of the greatness of the human spirit." The composer conducted the premiere of this eloquent work on January 13, 1945 (the eve of the Allied victory) in Moscow. He received his second Stalin Prize for this noble score. His triumph was short lived. Later in January, 1945 the composer fell. He suffered a severe concussion. He would continue to suffer frequent headaches and high blood pressure until his death eight years later. Prokofiev would require frequent hospitalization in the remaining years of his life. To make matters worse, political repression was around the corner.
Having become deeply involved with Mira Mendelssohn, Prokofiev separated from Lina in 1941. In 1947 Stalin's Supreme Soviet passed a law forbidding Soviet citizens from marrying foreigners. Applying the law retroactively, the State nullified Prokofiev marriage to Lina. Barely a year later (in 1948) Prokofiev married Mira. A month later Lina was arrested on a false charge of espionage and sent to a labor camp where she remained for eight years. (Prokofiev was unaware what had happened to Lina until his sons visited him with the news.) After her release Lina lived in Moscow until 1972 when she reestablished her Spanish citizenship, moved to London, and set up the Prokofiev Foundation and Archives. She frequently toured the world as a lecturer on Prokofiev's music and even narrated performances of "Peter and the Wolf" (including one at Festival Miami in 1987). She died in 1988.
As the Cold War began, Stalin decreed that Communist superiority must be reflected in all Soviet culture. Andrei Zhdanov, a member of the new Politburo, became the chief architect and enforcer of artistic orthodoxy. His censorship and none too subtle intimidation became known among artist as "Zhdanov terror." In 1948 Zhdanov denounced Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khatchaturian, and Miaskovsky for "bourgeois formalism." These composers were now out of official favor. As a result, performances of their music became almost non-existent. Shostakovich and Khatchaturian would recover and regain their stature. Prokofiev and Miaskovsky never would. After the success of his Sixth Symphony (1945) Prokofiev continued to compose - even without hope of performances. Of particular note are his ballet score "The Stone Flower" (1948-50) - a colorful, vibrantly beautiful score that was produced posthumously. There were two superb works for the cellist Mistislav Rostropovich - the "Sonata for Cello and Piano," Opus 119 and the "Sinfonia Concertante" for Cello and Orchestra (1950-51). With a remarkable degree of heroism, Rostropovich and Richter ignored Zhdanov's denouncement and premiered both works successfully. (Richter made his only appearance as a conductor at the first performance of the "Sinfonia Concertante.") Miaskovsky's death in 1950 further debilitated Prokofiev. Despite his difficult personal and political situation, Prokofiev continued to compose. While the posthumously produced opera "The Story of a Real Man" (1947-48) and the oratorio "On Guard for Peace" (1950) are often dismissed as musical propaganda, both works contain passages of intensely moving lyricism. His final major work was the Symphony No.7 (1951-52). Written for a youth orchestra, the score is a divertimento composed by a master. The premiere of this score marked Prokofiev's final public appearance. He died on March 5, 1953 - the same day as Stalin. With the official ceremonies honoring the dictator taking the main public attention, only 40 people attended Prokofiev's funeral. David Oistrakh played two movements from the 1st Violin Sonata. (Sviatoslav Richter was also present.) Later the composer's body was buried at Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery. Posthumously Prokofiev was awarded the Lenin Prize (the Soviet Union's highest honor) in 1957 for the 7th Symphony.
Sergei Prokofiev was a prolific and brilliant creative artist. In many ways his later works showcase his true genius. The lyrical simplicity and sincerity of the later symphonies and ballet scores is the work of a master. Prokofiev was always an original creative voice no matter what country, artistic milieu, or political situation he was working under. His greatest works remain treasures of the 20th century musical repertoire!