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Sergei Prokofieff
Sergei Prokofieff


Sergei Prokofiev began as a precocious prankster, developed into a fiery young modernist, and finally became a deeper, more emotional barometer of the artistic upheavals of Soviet Russia. In Peter and the Wolf he is the supreme characteriser of animals, in The Love for Three Oranges a madcap fantasist, and in Romeo and Juliet a master of ballet music. One of the twentieth century’s most inventive figures, his many other facets are only gradually being appreciated. As a child Prokofiev wrote short piano pieces for the birthdays and name days of his family. When he joined the St Petersburg Conservatoire, aged just 13, these miniatures morphed into his first published pieces. His first opera was composed when he was only 10. A children’s show called The Giant (1900), it was rather hit and miss. Seventeen years later another opera marked his maturity. The Gambler (1915–17) was based on Dostoyevsky’s febrile novella. Musically it is indebted to Mussorgsky. At around the same time as he was writing The Gambler, Prokofiev was exploring ballet. His fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky was leading the way with hard-hitting one-acters for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Prokofiev’s first shot at the form, a primitivist ballet called Ala and Lolly (1914–15), was too close to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for comfort. Undaunted, Prokofiev recycled it for the concert hall as the Scythian Suite, and in Russia it won him both scandal and success. Prokofiev was a pianist of undisputed talent, and again he used his abilities to shock. His First Piano Concerto (1911–12) was derided by conservative critics as ‘footballish’. His Second (1912–13) was of mammoth proportions and included a first-movement cadenza of colossal difficulty. For decades the composer was one of only a few pianists who could actually play it. Outside Russia he was still hardly known, and even this limited success came to an abrupt end with the 1917 Revolution. In spite of the political turmoil, Prokofiev managed to complete the delightful ‘Classical’ Symphony (1916–17) and lyrical First Violin Concerto (1916–17). In spring 1918 he left for America via Japan. In 1923 he moved to Paris, where he stayed until 1936. He had originally planned to be away for just a short time but he did not revisit what was by then the Soviet Union until 1927. He wrote simpler works for America, culminating in The Love for Three Oranges (1919), and more complex ones for avant-garde Paris. Arthur Honegger’s mechanistic Pacific 231 for orchestra inspired the dissonant Third Symphony (1928) and the demonic opera The Fiery Angel (1919–27). By the early 1930s Diaghilev had died and opportunities in the West were drying up. Prokofiev was also beginning to feel that a more melodic, direct style would work well in the new Russia. He made a steady rapprochement with his homeland. He would spend half the year touring as a pianist and conductor in western Europe and Russia, and the other half taking advantage of state-sponsored compositional refuges in the Soviet Union. Romeo and Juliet was drafted and orchestrated in the summer of 1935 on the country retreat of the Bolshoi Theatre. It was the greatest full-length ballet since Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, but it would be another five years before it was performed in Russia. At the same time, Prokofiev was experimenting with film music. He began with a witty score for Lieutenant Kijé (1933), about a misspelling on a document that launches the life of a fictional soldier in Paul the First’s Russia. His first great success in film came in 1938 with the sweeping, post-Romantic melodies of Alexander Nevsky. Its director, the great Sergey Eisenstein, was so amazed by Prokofiev’s sense of cinematic timing that for some scenes he even allowed the music to come before the cinematography. In the 1940s the two produced their darkest, most masterly work, Ivan the Terrible (1942–45). The Soviet Union gave Prokofiev generous time to compose, and he finally committed to the country in 1936. He moved his wife and two sons to Moscow and imagined that life would go on as it had before. But he had misread Stalin’s desire to bring the arts under state control. The following year was the most appalling of all for Russian citizens. ‘The great terror’ saw countless arrests under false charges. In the spring of 1938 Prokofiev was offered a contract to work as as a film composer in Hollywood, but he didn’t take it. Instead he went back to Russia to work on Alexander Nevsky. When he returned his passport was confiscated and he never travelled again.  The tensions of life under Stalin took their toll on Prokofiev’s physical and mental health. In 1945 he suffered an aneurism which left him unable to work for long stretches throughout the rest of his life. How his deteriorating health affected his music we will probably never know. But there is a new depth and darkness to his best works of this time. They include the First Violin Sonata (1938–46), the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas (1939–44), and the opera War and Peace (1941–52). Prokofiev’s belief in new and original melody was no hollow manifesto. Time and again he produced great and enduring themes. In his very last years he was hounded by show trials for deviating from the party line in music. Yet he continued to find his own way, even in the apparent simplicity of the Seventh Symphony (1951–52), a very different work from its two large-scale predecessors. He died on the same day as Stalin, 5 March 1953, leaving a vast and sometimes perplexing musical legacy.

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