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Classical Composers A-Z: Serge Prokofiev

Peter Wintersgill outlines the career of one of Russia's leading 20th Century composers.

Born
11th April, 1891. in Sontsovka, Ukraine.

Father
Serge, agricultural engineer.

Mother
Maria, well educated and musical.

Family
Two sisters, died before he was born, so effectively the only child.

Childhood
Had piano lessons from mother aged three. Precocious child, favourite hobby was chess. Started composing at nine.

Adolescence
Entered St. Petersburg Conservatoire at 13 in 1904. Taught by Rimsky Korsakov among others. Wrote first piano sonata (1909), 1st piano concerto (1911). Father died in 1910, mother hard-up, but kept Serge at Conservatoire.


Early Adult Life

Met Diaghilev in London in 1914, who commissioned a ballet. Because of the war this was never produced, but the music survives as the Scythian Suite, which became very popular.

His 2nd Piano Concerto (1913) was criticised for its modernity. After the revolution he left Russia for USA and settled there in 1918. He wrote the opera Love for Three Oranges there in 1921 and his First Symphony (Classical) in 1917.

He moved to Paris in 1921, where he wrote three ballets for Diaghilev - The Buffoon (1921), The Age of Steel (1925) and The Prodigal Son (1929), all conducted by Koussevitsky.

In 1923 he married Lina, a Spanish fellow student, after a long courtship. His mother, who was blind, lived with them until she died in 1924. His two sons were born in 1924 and 1928. He wrote Symphony 2 in 1925, Symphony 3 in 1928 and Symphony 4 in 1930.

Later Adult Life
He visited Russia several times in the 1930's, finally settling there in 1936. Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, he was unable to settle in the West, but fell foul of the Soviet regime from time to time.

On his return he wrote film music, especially Lieutenant Kije (1934) and Alexander Nevsky (1938). The music of the latter was made into a cantata, it was very nationalistic. His ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935) was followed by the popular Peter and the Wolf (1936).

During World War II came the large scale opera War and Peace (1942), the ballet Cinderella and the 5th Symphony (both 1944), the symphony being one of his finest.

Musically, like Walton, he was two opposing people - the 19th century nationalist and the 20th century bold experimenter in the new Soviet idiom. His best works are a combination of the two styles, e.g. War and Peace, the latter symphonies, the three ballets and Peter
and the Wolf.

In Soviet Russia music, and indeed other art forms, were either in or out of favour. In 1948 Prokofiev was forced to "confess" his shortcomings to the Soviet Composers Union. In 1947 there was a decree that no Soviet citizen could marry a foreigner; as the decree was retrospective and Lina was Spanish, his marriage was automatically dissolved and his sons became illegitimate.

This suited Prokofiev, as he had become increasingly fond of a old friend called Mira; they married in 1948.

In 1945 he had a fall, resulting in concussion and prolonged coma. He had headaches and high blood pressure for a long time afterwards. He had a heart attack in 1941, which left him permanently weak. He finally died on the same day as Stalin, 5th March, 1953 in Moscow of cerebral haemorrhage.

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