Sergey Prokofiev perhaps contributed more new music to the standard ‘classical’ repertory than any of his contemporaries. Yet he remains a difficult figure to pin down. Born and raised in Tsarist Russia, he established himself as a musical enfant terrible in the years before the Revolution, cultivating novel dissonances while still a student pianist-composer at the St Petersburg Conservatory.
Like Beethoven, he completed five concertos for his own instrument, losing interest once he was no longer primarily an executant himself. Despite political and economic turmoil, a burst of creativity around 1917 produced a large pile of scores, not least the First Violin Concerto and the ‘Classical’ Symphony, in which the composer’s lyrical vein is more strongly apparent alongside his keen sense of irony.
After 1918 he lived abroad, first in the USA, where his opera The Love for Three Oranges (1919) was staged, later mainly in Paris, where he became a peripheral member of the Diaghilev set. Several key compositions from this period have a tortured, Expressionistic character, notably the opera The Fiery Angel (1919–23, rev. 1926–7) and the related Third Symphony (1928).
The 1930s brought a surprising and, to some, inexplicable reconciliation with the new Soviet Russia. Prokofiev spent the last 17 years of his life in the USSR, stimulated as well as stifled by the cultural politics dictated by Stalin. The two men even died on the same night (5 March 1953).
Prokofiev’s return to Russia coincided with a state drive for greater directness of expression in the cultural sphere and, whatever the personal and professional setbacks, Prokofiev was encouraged to showcase his melodic gift in a series of major works that have proved to have enduring appeal. Notable among these are the ballets Romeo and Juliet (1935–6) and Cinderella (1940–44), the last three (of seven) symphonies, the last four (of nine) piano sonatas, the film music for Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1942–5), and the children’s fable Peter and the Wolf (1936). Acceptance of his magnum opus, the epic opera War and Peace (1941–3, rev. 1946–52), has been hindered by the lack of a definitive text and perceived ideological problems. But, for good or ill, he was an artist for hire, who prided himself on his professionalism.
As we come to know the composer’s personality through his music – in all its bracing humour, tender nostalgia and considerable tragic power – we can sense a uniquely positive response to difficult and dangerous times.
Profile by David Gutman © BBC