top of page

Sergei Prokofiev

1891 - 1971

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (23 April 1891 – 5 March 1953) was a Russian and Soviet composer, pianist and conductor. As the creator of acknowledged masterpieces across numerous musical genres, he is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. His works include such widely heard works as the March from The Love for Three Oranges, the suite Lieutenant Kijé, the ballet Romeo and Juliet – from which "Dance of the Knights" is taken – and Peter and the Wolf. Of the established forms and genres in which he worked, he created – excluding juvenilia – seven completed operas, seven symphonies, eight ballets, five piano concertos, two violin concertos, a cello concerto, a Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, and nine completed piano sonatas.

(b. Sontsovka, Ukraine, April 23, 1891; d. Moscow, March 5, 1953)

Russian composer and pianist. He was the last great composer to grow up in tsarist Russia and one of the first artists of any stature to leave the Soviet Union after the Revolution. A musically precocious only child, he was raised in comfort by doting parents, his father a country estate manager, his mother artistically inclined and a capable pianist. At 13 he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition; by his late teens he had become a provocative and powerful “modernistic” pianist. In 1914, after a decade as a student, he left his turbulent homeland for London, where he got a commission from Sergey Diaghilev for the ballet Ala and Lolli (which the impresario later rejected) and heard Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. By 1915 he had begun work on an opera based on Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. He returned home to find Russia in much worse turmoil than when he left, and he witnessed the Revolution of 1917 firsthand. His compositions from this time range widely, from prickly and dense piano scores to the inviting, accessible and exuberant Classical Symphony.

Motivated mainly by the desire to compose in peace, away from the chaos of war-ravaged Europe and Bolshevik-run Russia, he left his homeland for America (by way of Japan) in May 1918, with the blessing of the newly created Soviet ministry of culture. He expected to be gone for only a short time, but did not set foot on Russian soil again until 1927, and did not return for good until 1936. He did not care for Americans’ musical conservatism, and the press found his work “barbaric” and “discordant.” In 1921 his opera The Love for Three Oranges received its premiere in Chicago, in French; he returned to Europe the following year, settling first in Germany, and in 1923, newly married, moved to Paris.

In Paris, Prokofiev continued to perform and compose. Conductor Serge Koussevitzky became his publisher and commissioned several works from him. It was at one of Koussevitzky’s Paris concerts that the first Violin Concerto received its premiere, in 1923. Over time, Prokofiev Ibegan to change his style. The enfant terrible whose iconoclastic compositions left audiences electrified and confused through the 1920s gave way to a composer who, in his own words, had “gone down into the deeper realms of music” in search of a simpler, more direct style in which the emphasis was on emotional expression rather than novelty of syntax.

Key Works

Sergey Prokofiev, 1918

Much has been said about the forces that compelled Prokofiev to return to his native land at a time when Stalin and his minions were cracking down on artists, but financial concerns were not the main reason the prodigal son chose to come home. Starting in 1932, Prokofiev had been making increasingly frequent trips back and found the atmosphere in the U.S.S.R. more in tune with his development toward a simpler style. He also missed working with artists who shared his view of the world, and hungered for the feeling of belonging—to a people and a land—that a Russian can experience only in Russia. Commissions for the score to the film Lieutenant Kije, the children’s piece Peter and the Wolf, and the ballet Romeo and Juliet all came his way between 1933 and 1936. One of the most important projects of his first years back in Russia was his collaboration with the director Sergey Eisenstein on the film Alexander Nevsky, premiered in 1938. Prokofiev’s score, one of the most vibrandy descriptive and dramatic in the history of cinema, combines symphonic grandeur and edgy modernism in a way that would typify Prokofiev’s Soviet production; for concert use he extracted the meat of the score and turned it into a cantata.

In 1940 Prokofiev received a commission from the Kirov Theater in Leningrad to compose a ballet based on the Cinderella tale. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 brought a temporary halt to the project, and Prokofiev turned to patriotic undertakings and an opera on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The siege of Leningrad forced the evacuation of the Kirov company to the city of Molotov in the Urals, where Prokofiev finished his Cinderella in 1944. During the war years Prokofiev experienced a number of lifechanging experiences: He suffered his first heart attack, and had an affair with a younger woman that ended his marriage. By 1944, when he composed his Fifth Symphony, which he described as “the culmination of a long period of my creative life,” the tide of World War II had turned, and Prokofiev had reached a new maturity as a composer.

Portrait of the composer Sergei Prokofiev, 1934 by Pyotr Konchalovsky

His more direct approach had already manifested itself in Romeo and Juliet, Alexander Nevsky, and the Violin Concerto No. 2, but in this symphony it achieved its most powerful expression yet. A work of epic scope and noble character, the Fifth belongs to the grand Romantic tradition yet is clearly in touch with the spirit of its time. The war’s grim presence can be felt in many parts of the score, most graphically in the concluding pages of the first movement, where the thunder of heavy guns is evoked in a towering, percussive climax. Here and elsewhere in the symphony one senses a disquieting ambivalence—feelings of triumph and tragedy are interlinked, neither clearly predominant.

Having won a Stalin Prize for the Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev took a darker, edgier tone in his Symphony No. 6 (1947), a brooding work of remarkable power and originality. He got the shock of his life when, on February 10, 1948, he was censured in a brutal purge of the Union of Composers. The crackdown, masterminded by Stalin’s henchman Andrey Zhdanov and ruthlessly carried out by Tikhon Khrennikov, the union’s first secretary, left Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and others in official disgrace. That the composer of Peter and the Wolf could be branded a “decadent formalist” remains one of the supreme ironies of 20th-century art, but as the reality of his predicament set in, Prokofiev’s spirit began to crumble. From this point most of his output was “celebratory” music written on commission, its tone shaped by the dictates of “socialist realism.” Only in the Symphony Concerto for cello and orchestra, Op. 125 (1952), written for Rostropovich, did some of the old fire return.

Prokofiev, though dead for more than 50 years, remains (like Shostakovich) a victim of cultural politics. Assertions that he opportunistically sold out to the Soviets in the 1930s are not supported by the historical record. And despite the fact that he accommodated the apparatchiks in some of his later works, the best of them still speak forcefully to the emotions. His greatest scores from the Soviet period, including Alexander Nevsky, the Fifth Symphony, and War and Peace, clearly transcend any political context. As his music becomes more distanced from the times in which it was written, Prokofiev will only gain in stature.

Symphony No. 1 "Classical" 

Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op 100

Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major, op. 26

[0:00] Andante - Allegro
[9:02] Thema: Andantino - Variation I: L'istesso tempo - Var. II: Allegro - Var. III: Allegro moderato - Var. IV: Andantino meditativo - Var. V: Allegro giusto - Thema: L'Istesso tempo
[18:05] Allegro ma non troppo

Violin Concerto No.1 in D major Opus 19

0:21 I. Andantino
10:08 II. Scherzo
13:50 III. Moderato – Allegro moderato

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 

1-Allegro moderato : 0.00 - 10.05
2-Andante assai : 10.08 -19.25
3-Allegro ben marcato : 19.28 - 25.34

The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Op 33 bis

00:00 I. The Clowns
03:04 II. The Magician and the Witch Play Cards
06:19 III. March
07:44 IV. Scherzo
09:15 V. The Prince and Princess
13:01 VI. The Flight

Romeo & Juliet Suite

Composed in 1934, this is a classic example of the Soviet taste for full-length, traditional ballets.

ACT ONE The Prince of Verona’s command that no one break the peace is portrayed in unusually sharp dissonance. Prokofiev lavishes three tender themes on Juliet, and portrays with great subtlety the moment when she sees herself in the mirror and realises she’s no longer a girl. The ensuing “Masked Ball” where Juliet meets Romeo has some of Prokofiev’s finest dance music.

ACT TWO Juliet and Romeo are married in secret by Friar Lawrence in a marvellously tender and intimate scene. The fight scenes are full of restless, “cinematic” music.
ACT THREE Prokofiev at first contrived a happy ending (this may have been a concession to the Soviet demand for optimism in art), but Ihe original tragic ending was reinstated.

Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78

1. Russia under the Mongolian Yoke
2. Song about Alexander Nevsky
3. The Crusaders in Pskov
4. Arise, Men of Russia
5. The Battle on Ice
6. The Field of the Dead
7. Alexander's Entry into Pskov

Cinderella, op. 87 (Act I)

No 1 Introduction
No 2 Shawl Dance
No 3 Cinderella
No 4 The Father
No 5 The Fairy Godmother
No 6 The Sisters' New Clothes
No 7 The Dancing Lesson
No 8 Departure of the Stepmother and the Sisters for the Ball
No 9 Cinderella Dreams of the Ball
No 10 Gavotte
No 11 Second Appearance of the Fairy Godmother
No 12 Spring Fairy
No 13 Summer Fairy
No 14 Grasshoppers and Dragonflies
No 15 Autumn Fairy
No 16 Winter Fairy
No 17 The Interrupted Departure
No 18 The Clock
No 19 Cinderella's Departure for the Ball

String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, Op. 50

00:00 - I. Allegro 
07:02 - II. Andante molto 
14:13 - III. Andante 

Grave of Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev

bottom of page