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Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)

prokofiev picture Sergei Prokofiev was born in the Ukraine, and by his early teens he was an accomplished pianist and already composing works such as the "Scythian Suite". From this and other works it initially looked as though the young composer had modernist tendencies. During these precocious years, he was naturally rebellious and delighted in mocking and shocking authority figures or anyone who held traditionalist views. Perhaps this was something of an act or "a phase he was going through" because it became apparent that, for all the novelties introduced in his style, Prokofiev was at heart a traditional classical composer. He largely stuck to established musical conventions, though elaborating upon them and introducing influences from other composers, from folk music and ideas absorbed during his travels abroad. Some of his influences came from the old Russian school of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, but he also took on board the fresh ideas from Stravinsky, from Western composers and from his own instinctive talent for thematic development and sense of movement and drama.

peter and the wolf CD cover Prokofiev travelled to Japan, to the United States, and to the European capitals of London and Paris. These travels gave him opportunities to learn new ideas, but also to demonstrate his talents to new audiences. He met Stravinsky, and worked on a number of ideas for ballet material for Diaghilev. He eventually settled in the West and remained there for some 15 years where he relished the artistic freedom and stimulation, and he produced a number of major works during this time. Film music was in its formative years at this time, and Prokofiev was quick to realise its potential, even visiting Hollywood at one time. However after some visits to the USSR, he decided to return to his friends and home country. He therefore became subject to the same state-defined restrictions as Shostakovich and other artists. Like the younger composer he also stepped over the mark on occasion and was branded a "formalist" before apologies and conformist material re-established a secure position, though he was never able to fully express himself under these conditions. Ironically he died on the same day as Stalin.

Prokofiev's music:

Sergei Prokofiev - violin concertos CD cover Prokofiev has a style which is readily identifiable yet difficult to describe. It certainly demonstrates some of the base instincts also exhibited by Stravinsky. Although not as bitterly sarcastic as the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev also used satire in his music. Most of all though, his music seems to obey its own rules which are entirely logical without being overly predictable. It obeyed normal musical conventions, while allowing itself to jump off at tangents from time to time. Prokofiev was a master of the orchestra, and a natural at writing music for drama and dance. Although an earlier commission from Diaghilev was unfruitful, he wrote a number of highly dynamic ballets, operas and film music. Most famous among his ballets is "Romeo and Juliet" with its strident theme for the irreconcilable Montagues and Capulets. Among his film music, Lieutenant Kije is very familiar particularly the "Troika" with its sleighbells being frequently played at Christmas time. He also collaborated with the great Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein on a number of notable films such as Alexander Nevsky. Other selected works include the following:

    Sergei Prokofiev - Romeo and Juliet CD cover
  • War and Peace and The Love of Three Oranges - operas
  • Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet - ballets, the latter is definitely worth a visit if the opportunity arises - you won't be disappointed
  • 7 Symphonies - the 5th and 6th are among the most popular mature compositions, although the bright short Symphony no.1 composed as a young student is also frequently heard in concert
  • 2 violin concertos - these are very highly regarded, and the second is recommended as a superb example of the composer's traditional yet novel approach to composition
  • 5 piano concertos - the fourth being for one hand
  • 2 string quartets
  • several piano and violin sonatas - the second for violin was originally a flute sonata
  • Lieutenant Kije - satirical film with characterful music from which most people will recognise two or three familiar tunes
  • Alexander Nevsky - for Sergei Eisenstein, best know in its concert format and famous for the filming and scoring of its "battle on the ice" scene
  • Ivan the Terrible (Op.116) - also for Eisenstein, the film is in two parts (1944-45) though there are shorter settings for the concert hall - one given during the 2003 Promenade concert season has a narrator to tell parts of the story (sung in Russian)

Prokofiev - Recommendations:

Here is a selection of CD recordings which will introduce you to some of the best-known music by Prokofiev. We also recommend that you check out our review of his music for the film Alexander Nevsky which has further recommendations.

  • Peter and the Wolf - a family favourite often has a celebrity to act as narrator introducing the characters and their themes, on this recording the narration is performed by Lloyd Bridges available at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
  • Romeo and Juliet - sometimes music from this is played as a concert suite, though this complete ballet is conducted by Andre Previn from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
  • The two Violin Concertos - played by a past master of that instrument, Isaac Stern, at Amazon.com