Sergei Prokofiev is a Russian composer from the first half of the twentieth century. His style was free and unfettered by compositional rules. He focused on rhythm and the combination of modern lyricism with a more restrained inspiration: his music is eminently suited to the cinema and was used for a number of films by Eisenstein.
From childhood, Prokofiev displayed exceptional abilities for learning and composing music. He studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov and very early assumed a nonconformist approach. He won the Anton Rubinstein prize for best piano student. He played for Stravinsky at a concert. He left Saint Petersburg for Paris, where he met Diaghilev, with whom he composed a number of ballets. When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, Prokofiev chose exile, a decision that left him free to compose. After writing his first symphony, he wrote, in Chicago, a crucial work in his career, the opera The Love for Three Oranges, which was immediately very popular. He continued to compose an abundant and diverse body of works in Europe, including concertos and symphonies.
In 1933, he decided to return to Russia on the strength of promises made to him by the government. Followed another very productive period (Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Ivan the Terrible), which came to an end with the war. After serious health problems and persecuted by the USSR, Prokofiev died almost unnoticed, overshadowed by Stalin's death the same day.
Prokofiev composed in every genre except sacred music. He poured his best efforts into his music for piano and his works for ballet and cinema. Prokofiev was realistic, determined, focused on the tangible world and the future, witty and provocative. And yet he also had a strong lyrical side and was always able to adapt his melodic invention to the various styles he used.
Six landmark dates in the life of Prokofiev:
• 1900: aged 9, Prokofiev composed an opera for children, The Giant.
• 1906: met Myakovsky, a Russian composer who became his closest friend.
• 1914: following his studies at the Saint Petersburg conservatoire, Prokofiev was awarded the Anton Rubinstein Prize, as pianist and composer, for his Piano Concerto No. 1.
• 1927-28: in Paris, worked with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes on the premiere of The Steel Step and later The Prodigal Son; met artistic and literary figures (Picasso, Matisse, Poulenc, Ravel) and fell out with Stravinsky.
• 1938: began working with the director Eisenstein to compose the music for the film Alexander Nevsky (followed by Tonia and then Ivan the Terrible in 1942).
• 1947: named People's Artist of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic; this did not protect Prokofiev from other attacks by Stalin's regime.
Six key works by Prokofiev:
• 1913 (rewritten in 1923): Piano Concerto No. 2 in 4 movements; first performed in Saint Petersburg.
• 1916: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major; first performed in 1923 in Paris.
• 1921: The Love for Three Oranges, opera in a prologue and 4 acts, first performed in Chicago, based on the play by Carlo Gozzi.
• 1935: Romeo and Juliet, ballet in 3 acts, based on the play by Shakespeare.
• 1945: Symphony No. 5, in 4 movements; patriotic work with war-like overtones, marking the victory over Germany; given a triumphant reception. Prokofiev obtained a Stalin Prize for this work.
• 1952: Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, first performed in Moscow.