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Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953)

The Russian composer Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev mastered numerous musical genres and came to be admired as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

Born in Sontsovka, Ukraine, he was the only child. His mother was a pianist and his father was a relatively wealthy agricultural engineer.

Prokofiev displayed unusual musical abilities by the age of five and by age 11, when he started taking private lessons in composition, he had already produced a number of innovative pieces. One early piano composition was written in F major, but without the customary B-Flat – the young Prokofiev did not like the black keys!

As soon as he had the theoretical tools, he started experimenting, laying the base for his own musical style.

When thirteen, Prokofiev moved to St Petersburg and was accepted at the St Petersburg Conservatory where he started his composition studies the same year, although he was several years younger than most of his classmates. One of his teachers was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

In 1910, Prokofiev’s father died and he was left without economic support. Luckily, although he frequently caused scandal with his avant-garde music, he had started to make a name for himself as a composer as his first two piano concertos were composed around this time.

In 1914, Prokofiev left the Conservatory with the highest marks of his class, a success that won him a grand piano. Soon afterwards, he made a trip to London, where he got acquainted with Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravisky.

During World War I, Prokofiev returned to the Conservatory, this time to study organ. He composed an opera based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Gambler but the rehearsals were plagued with problems, and the premiere, scheduled for 1917, had to be cancelled because of the February Revolution. In May 1918, seeing no possibilities for his experimental music, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, he headed for the USA.

Arriving in San Francisco, he was immediately compared to other famous Russian exiles - Sergei Rachmaninov was one of them - and he started out successfully with a solo concert in New York, leading to several further engagements.

He also received a contract for the production of a new opera, The Love of Three Oranges, which premiered in Chicago without much success, forcing Prokofiev to leave America without triumph.

Around 1927, his situation started looking better; he received some exciting commissions from Diaghilev and made a number of concert tours in Russia. In addition, he enjoyed a very successful production of The Love of Three Oranges in Leningrad, two of his older operas (one of them, The Gambler) were performed in Europe, and in 1928, he wrote his Third Symphony, which was broadly based on his unperformed opera, The Fiery Angel.

Then, the years 1931 and 1932 saw the completion of his fourth and fifth piano concertos.

In 1934, Prokofiev moved back to the Soviet Union permanently. The official Soviet policy towards music changed, and a special bureau, the “Composers’ Union”, was established in order to keep track of the artists and their doings. More importantly, regulations were drawn up outlining what kind of music was acceptable.

These policies would gradually cause almost complete isolation for the Soviet composers from the rest of the world by significantly limiting outside influences.

Prokofiev turned to composing music for children, such as Three Songs for Children and Peter and the Wolf, as well as the gigantic Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, which was, however, never performed.

The premiere of his opera Semyon Kotko was postponed, this time because the director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, was imprisoned and executed.

In 1941, the outbreak of war inspired Prokofiev to turn to a new opera project, War and Peace, based on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, on which he worked for two years. He also wrote the film music for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and composed his second string quartet. However, because of the Union’s regulations, the opera had to undergo many revisions and was not premiered.

In 1944, Prokofiev moved to an estate outside of Moscow to compose his Fifth Symphony (Op. 100), which would turn out to be his most successful.

Shortly afterwards, he fell down and suffered a concussion from which he never fully recovered and which severely lowered his productivity in later years.

The end of the war brought back focus on domestic policies and the Party again tightened its reins on the artists. Prokofiev’s music was suddenly seen as a grave example of “formalism”, and considered as “dangerous” to the Soviet people.

In 1948, Prokofiev’s wife Lina was arrested for espionage - she had tried to send money to her mother in Spain via the embassy. She was sentenced to 20 years, but eventually released after Stalin’s death.

Prokofiev’s latest opera projects were quickly cancelled from the Kirov Theatre, and this, combined with his declining health, caused him to withdraw more and more from the scene. His last performance was the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1952, a piece of a somewhat bittersweet character, for which he had been requested to rewrite a cheerful ending.

He died from a cerebral hemorrhage on 5 March 1953 (the same day that Stalin died), at age 61.