Personalities | Sergei Prokofiev | Modern Era | Classical

(Syir’-ga Pru-kôf’-yef) 1891–1953
Russian composer

Prokofiev’s music oscillates between motor rhythm and lyricism, and between irony and expressive sincerity. This gives his compositions extreme variety: works composed closely in time, even adjacent movements in the same work, are of quite different characters.

He began composing as a child, and had his first success (with his First Piano Concerto, which he played himself) while still a student. He soon attracted the attention of Diaghilev, who commissioned a score (Ala and Lolly) for his Ballets Russes, but rejected it: Prokofiev had imitated Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring too closely. In rapid succession he then wrote Chout (‘The Clown’, 1915), a ballet in his ironic, strongly rhythmic manner, an opera, The Gambler (1917), in which a recurring theme – compulsive obsession – is first sketched, the Haydnesque ‘Classical’ Symphony (1917) and his elegantly melodious First Violin Concerto (1917).

Later Years

He spent the years after World War I in the US and Paris, writing The Love for Three Oranges (1920), a fairytale operatic fantasy, and The Fiery Angel (1923), a wildly frenetic story of demonic possession. Two new ballets were as strongly contrasted: Le pas d’acier (‘The Steel Step’, 1925), a machine-age fantasy, and The Prodigal Son (1927), filled with nobility and balletic grace.

In 1933 he visited Russia for the first time in 16 years, and returned there for good in 1936, but his Romeo and Juliet (1935), commissioned by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, was at first rejected. For a while Prokofiev devoted himself to propaganda music and film scores, including Sergei Eisenstein’s (1898–1948) Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky. His Fifth Symphony (1944) was welcomed by Soviet authorities and audiences, but his later operas, including The Duenna (1940) and the epic War and Peace (1941), had a mixed reception, and his final years were troubled by official denunciation and worsening health.

Recommended Recording:
Symphonies Nos. 1–7, Royal Scottish National Orchestra (cond) Neeme Järvi (Chandos)

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