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Sergei Prokofiev

1891 -1953



Sergei 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


The 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.


Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists: from Mozart to the Present, at 414 (Simon & Schuster 1987).


Many 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 hero.


He 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. 
Prokofiev 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.)


[We 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.]


If 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 here:

Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (W.W. Norton and Company, 3d Ed.1997);

Harold 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).


To put Prokofiev’s music in the context of the history of art, and for 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, especially Chapter 27, “Experimental Art.”


©  This 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.

Copyright 2003 John, Jean, Johnny and Chris Rice





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