Music Monday: Sergei Prokofiev | Los Angeles Public Library
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Music Monday: Sergei Prokofiev

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Photo of Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 27, 1891. Prokofiev was one of the most popular composers of the 20th century, with important works that are part of the standard repertoire in nearly every genre – symphony, opera, ballet, piano music, chamber music.

Prokofiev began studying composition with Reinhold Gliere when he was 11, and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at 13. He quickly developed a reputation as a fine pianist. His concerts often included his own music, which excited the young modernists and often baffled the more traditional members of his audience. The 1913 premiere of Prokofiev's second piano concerto had some audience members complaining that "the cats on the roof make better music." That music, in its original form, has been lost to us; the score was destroyed in a 1917 fire; Prokofiev reconstructed and revised the work in 1923. It is considered one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire.

Prokofiev graduated from the Conservatory in 1914, though he would return as a student to avoid conscription during World War I. His first symphony, known as the "Classical Symphony," premiered in 1918; it's written in loose imitation of Haydn and other composers of the classical era.

Prokofiev visited the United States in 1918, intending to tour as a conductor and pianist (and wanting to escape the turmoil of Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution). He was offered a commission for a new work, which would become The Love for Three Oranges; the time spent in composing that opera kept him from performing as often as he had expected. The opera's premiere was delayed by the death of the director who had commissioned it, and Prokofiev cut his visit to America short, leaving for Paris in 1920.

In 1927, Prokofiev returned to what was now the Soviet Union for a concert tour. He had recently converted to Christian Science, finding that it had a calming influence which was reflected in what he called a "new simplicity" in his music. Works from this era, such as the third symphony and the ballet The Prodigal Son, were among his most popular yet.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression made private commissions harder to come by, and more of Prokofiev's music was written for the Soviet government. He wrote several film scores during this decade, and two of them were adapted into important concert works -- the Suite from Lieutenant Kije and the cantata Alexander Nevsky.

Also from this period is Prokofiev's most frequently performed work, the children's story Peter and the Wolf, in which a narrator tells the tale of a young boy's adventure in the meadow while the orchestral instruments act out the story. A wide range of celebrities have narrated the piece, including David Bowie, Alec Guinness, Sting, Boris Karloff, Captain Kangaroo, and Melissa Joan Hart.

The late 1930s and early 1940s were productive years, and Prokofiev was a national celebrity. Within a five-year span, he produced his most important ballet, Romeo and Juliet; another significant film score, Ivan the Terrible; and his popular fifth symphony.

Things changed abruptly in 1948 when the Soviet government issued the Zhdanov Decree (named for the secretary of the Central Committee). Prokofiev and several other Soviet composers were condemned for excessive formalism – that is, for writing music that existed only for its own sake, with no social purpose. Eight of Prokofiev's worked were banned from performance, and the decree created such fear and paranoia that performances of his other works became rare.

Despite the pressures of the Zhdanov Decree, and his own declining health, Prokofiev's final years were marked by a small flurry of masterpieces. His Cello Sonata and the Sinfonia Concertante (a reworking of an earlier cello concerto) were both premiered by the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; and the 1952 premiere of his seventh symphony was the final public performance Profkofiev attended.

Sergei Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953. That was the same day as the death of Joseph Stalin, which meant that his death and funeral were largely overlooked; even the leading music magazine in the country devoted nearly 120 pages to Stalin's death before finally mentioning that of Prokofiev. Today, Prokofiev is among the most frequently performed 20th century composers. The pieces linked above are only a small sampling of his large body of work; much more of Prokofiev's music is available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal.