Prokofiev was born in Russia, in what is now known as the Ukraine.
He was a child prodigy, composing his first opera at the age of 12.
He was educated at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was a student
of Rimsky-Korsakov. He was known at the conservatory as talented
and intelligent (some thought he was a genius), and also as stubborn,
outspoken and irritating. Many people experienced him as a distresssing,
disturbing person. His music was even more distressing and disturbing
to people. He disliked the music of Chopin and Liszt, and composed
music which was
anti-romantic age was underway. Prokofieff was a marvelous pianist
and a perfect illustrator of his own theories. With his Piano
Concerto No. 1 and his Suggestion diabolique he demonstrated in a fearsome
manner the austerity and power of the new idiom. Gone were romantic
color, wide-spaced arpeggios, inner voices, pretty melodies. This
was music of revolution.  Prokofieff at the piano attacked
the music with a controlled fury, blasting out savage and complicated
rhythms, giving or asking no mercy. He went about it almost without
pedal, and with a percussive, metallic-sounding tone.
C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists: from Mozart to the Present,
at 414 (Simon & Schuster 1987).
people did not like Prokofiev or his music, but he could not be readily
dismissed or ignored by the musical world, even in his youth. He
won the renowned Rubenstein Prize in 1914 at the age of 23, while still
at the conservatory, and there can be no question but that he won it on
his own terms. The rules of the competition required all contestants
to play a classical concerto. Prokofiev insisted on playing his
own Piano Concerto No. 1. The directors of the conservatory “raised
a storm,” but so did Prokofiev, and ultimately the directors acquiesced,
so long as he could provide each member of the jury with a copy of his
concerto before the competition. Prokofiev managed to get it printed in
time. He wrote later: “When I came out on stage, the first
thing I saw was my concerto spread out on twenty laps - an unforgettable
sight for a composer who had just begun to be published.”
Id. at 415.
Prokofiev left Russia in 1917, in the turmoil after the Russian Revolution.
He came to the United States, where he composed and performed for several
years. He was called the “pianist of steel,” and his
music was described as “Russian chaos,” “carnival of
cacophony,” and “Bolshevism in art.” Id. at 416.
His music was performed and discussed, but not performed as often as he
would have liked. He became despondent and resentful of American
audiences and their preferences for more melodic music, and he moved on
to Paris, where he found more acceptance. He toured from time to
time in the Soviet Union, and eventually returned to that country as a
permanent resident in 1935. He was welcomed home as a much celebrated
wrote of his decision to return to his homeland as a sincere longing for
his Russian roots:
I’ve got to live myself back into the atmosphere of my native
soil. I’ve got to see real winters again, and spring that
bursts into being from one moment to the next. I’ve got
to hear the Russian language echoing in my ears. I’ve got to talk
to people who are of my own flesh and blood, so that they can give me
back something I lack here -- their songs, my songs.
Phil G. Goulding, Classical Music: the 50 Greatest Composers and Their
1,000 Greatest Works, at 293 (Fawcett Columbine 1992).
Igor Stravinsky, another composer of the 20th Century and a person who
knew Prokofiev, offered a less generous assessment of Prokofiev’s
return to Russia. He attributed it more to Prokofiev’s desire
for acclaim rather than being homesick:
He had no success in the United States and Europe for several reasons,
while his visit to Russia had been a triumph. When I saw him for
the last time in 1937 he was despondent about his material and artistic
fate in France. He was politically naïve, however....
He returned to Russia, and when finally he understood his position there,
it was too late.
Id. at 290-91.
Prokoviev became the dominant force in Soviet music for many years.
He wrote in many forms and he produced a great deal of music: concertos,
symphonies, ballets, film scores, string quartet music, and operas.
“These were clearly scores of a master, and also somewhat different
from Prokofiev’s French and American period. It carried all of Prokofiev’s
rhythmic, melodic and harmonic mannerisms, but sounded less modern, less
age-of-steel. Emotionally it was a gentler kind of music, staying close
to the principles of Socialist Realism.” Harold C. Schonberg,
The Lives of the Great Composers, at 532 (W. W. Norton &
Company 1997). During the years of World War II (1937 - 1945) Prokofiev
wrote some particularly stirring pieces, including the Leningrad Piano
Sonata, and his Fifth Symphony, considered by many to be not only his
finest symphony but one of the century’s best. It’s
a wonderfully intense and melodic work, which presents both the tragedy
and destruction of war, and also a sense of faith and hope. He dedicated
it to "the spirit of man."
Even though Prokofiev was a giant in the international world of music,
and honored in his own country, he was not protected from the crushing
dictates of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. In 1948, Stalin’s
regime attacked Prokofiev and his music, along with virtually all the
other important Soviet composers of the day. Charges were brought by the
Central Committee of the Communist Party against Prokofiev, Shostakovich,
Muradeli, Khachaturian, Miaskovsky, and others. As a group, they
were the target of a document called the Resolution on Formalism in Music.
They were accused of the serious political sin of writing “formalistic”
music (“formalism” being “art for art’s sake”).
They were also accused of “anti-democratic tendencies that are alien
to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes” as well as “writing
music strongly reminiscent of the spirit of contemporary modernistic bourgeois
music of Europe and America.” This was a time when Stalin
held the power of life and death over those who lived in Russia.
One by one, the composers confessed their error, and resolved to write
music more suitable to Soviet socialist principles. All the composers
wrote a joint letter to Stalin, thanking him for the public reprimand:
“We are tremendously grateful to the Central Committee of the All-Union
Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and personally to you, dear Comrade Stalin,
for the severe but profoundly just criticism of the present state of Soviet
music…. We shall bend every effort to apply our knowledge
and our artistic mastery to produce vivid realistic music reflecting the
life and struggles of the Soviet people….” Id. at 534.
joined in this group apology, as well as extending his own personal apology
for wrongdoing. He succeeded in staying out of prison, and
lived another five years in the Soviet Union until his death, at age 62.
We are given a wonderful glimpse into the dynamics of Prokofiev’s
creative genius, as his adaptation to appropriate political deference
in the last phase of his life, through the eyes of the famous cellist,
Mstislav Rostropovich, who still lived in Russia at that time. (Rostropovich
was expelled from Russia in 1974, and he still performs throughout the
world. Many believe him to be the world’s greatest living
cellist.) Here is how Rostropovich describes his collaboration with
Prokofiev on a wonderful composition known as Symphonia Concertante.
(This is one of Johnny Rice’s favorite pieces of music. Johnny
has performed it, and we have included four excerpts on this web site.)
I had long been aware of Prokofiev’s First Cello Concerto, composed
in the 1930’s, and of its rather unsuccessful premiere, but only
around 1943 did I begin to look for a copy of the score. Eventually
I found an edition with piano accompaniment, and in January 1948 (not
long before composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev were harried
and attacked by the infamous Resolution on Formalism in Music) I performed
it to great acclaim.  Prokofiev honoured me by saying that he wished
to revise the Concerto with my help. I had just been appointed
an assistant professor at the Moscow Conservatoire when the Resolution
on Formalism was published. It was shameful how some of the staff
dutifully went about criticizing the targets of the Resolution, though
in their fear it is, perhaps, not surprising that they abandoned their
principles to leave Shostakovish, Prokofiev and Vissarioon Shebalin
with only a few really faithful friends.
 In 1950 Prokofiev began to make changes to his First Cello Concerto
and eventually settled on the title Symphony-Concerto. He even
asked me to compose some of the passages, but when I did so he always
made some small but significant changes, leaving me wondering at how
narrow, yet unbridgeable, is the gap between the mundane and the sublime.
In the finale of the Symphony-Concerto Prokofiev incorporated a theme
that was similar to a popular song by Vladmimir Zakharov, an apparatchik
who mercilessly vilified all “formalists”. After the
work was played at the Composers’ Union, Zakharov stood up and
said indignantly that he would write to the papers complaining that
his own wonderful tune had been totally distorted. When I related
this to Prokofiev he wrote a replacement tune (a waltz, which I never
played), and said that once everything had settled down we would quietly
revert to the original tune. The manuscript, which is in my keeping,
includes both versions.
Mstislav Rostropovich, The Russian Years 1950-1974 (1997) (excerpted
from the pamphlet materials circulated with the beautiful CD of the same
title, produced by EMI Records Ltd.)
would very much appreciate your writing to us about what your family members
were doing during the time of Prokofiev’s life, or about what was
happening in your part of the world. We would love to expand this
discussion of the times of Prokofiev on this web site.]
you would like to read more about Prokofiev’s music and about his
life, we encourage you to look at the fine books we used in preparing
this material, which discuss far more than we have attempted to include
Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great
Composers (W.W. Norton and Company, 3d Ed.1997);
C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists: from Mozart to the Present
(Simon & Schuster 1987);
Phil G. Goulding, Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their
1,000 Greatest Works (Fawcett Columbine, 1992).
put Prokofiev’s music in the context of the history of art, and
a glimpse of the visual art produced in the first half of the twentieth
century, we recommend you look at the wonderful art history
book by E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon, 16th Ed. 1995,
27, “Experimental Art.”
page and the entire contents (including the video and audio contents)
of this The Rice Brothers and Friends(TM) site are copyright © 2003
John, Jean, Johnny and Chris Rice. All Rights reserved. No
copyright claimed in brief quotations from other authors for purposes
of review or scholarly comment.
John, Jean, Johnny and Chris Rice
(1900 through present)