Classical Composer Biography : Sergei Prokofiev
by Betty Fry
Born in 1891 in Krasnoye near Ekaterinoslav, Russia, Sergei Prokofiev’s life was as varied as his music. His mother, who also encouraged his evident gift for composition, taught him piano. So much so, that by the time he had reached nine years of age he had composed an opera. When he was eleven he studied with the composer Gliere, and two years later, in 1904, entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There he studied counterpoint with Lyadov and orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov, and subsequently, piano. He became a brilliant pianist and several of his compositions from this period were published. In 1914 he won the prestigious Rubinstein prize, audaciously choosing to play his own ‘First Piano Concerto’.
Prokofiev was a composer of many parts, blending musical radicalism and intellectual toughness with the older Russian romantic tradition of Tchaikovskyand Rimsky-Korsakov. From the din and dissonance of a work such as ‘The Steel Step’, and the drama and excitement of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (both ballets) to the innocent charm of the fairy tale ‘Peter and the Wolf’ he has emerged as one of the most powerful and popular composers of the 20th century. Prokofiev composed the piano score of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ in little more than a week, and orchestrated it just as quickly, in 1936. Intended as an introduction for young listeners to the instruments of an orchestra, it was an immediate success from its first play-through to an impromptu children’s audience.
A narrator tells the simple tale of the little boy, Peter, who ignores his grandfather’s warnings and goes off alone into the woods. There he meets a wolf, captures it with the help of other animals and a length of stout rope and leads it triumphantly off to the zoo. The various characters – grandfather, a cat, a duck, some huntsmen, the wolf himself – are all represented by different instruments, or groups of instruments.
In his ‘Opus 67′, which includes ‘Peter’s Theme’ and ‘The Bird’s Theme’, Peter’s own, carefree tune is played on the violins, accompanied by the other strings of the orchestra. The bird is announced by little skipping phrases on the flute, and Peter’s theme on the strings returns, with the bird’s flute tune chirruping high above.
He also wrote other piano pieces called ‘Music for Children’ and ‘Three Children’s Songs’. According to his first wife Lina Llubera, he understood what amused children. This may have been partly because he had two sons, Svyatoslav and Oleg, from this marriage.
The brilliant young Russian composer and pianist was 26 when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, but the new regime was not to Prokofiev’s taste and in 1918 he went into exile, first in the United States, but in 1920 settled in Paris where he lived for sixteen years, apart from two years when he lived in Ettal in the Bavarian Alps and where he married his first wife Lina in September, 1923. But the need to earn a living forced him to spend much of his time touring Europe and the USA as a concert pianist.
Prokofiev’s official Soviet biography hardly mentions this marriage to the Spanish born Caroline Llubera, though there is every indication that their life together was happy. And it is possible that their separation in 1941 was persuaded and encouraged by the Soviet authorities. I can’t help wondering if this might have helped him to understand and interpret so very well the anguish of Romeo in his ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
As the Germans advanced on Moscow in August 1941, Prokofiev left for the Caucasus. With Mira Mendelson. Lina remained behind. A Communist Party Member, and niece of the Minister of Heavy Industry, Mira was deemed a much more suitable partner.
A decree of 1947, forbidding Soviet citizens to marry foreigners, nullified Prokofiev’s marriage to Lina, and made their two sons illegitimate. A year later, Lina was charged with spying and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. She emerged eight years later, and finally left the U.S.S.R. in 1972.
Prokofiev was never totally enamored with life in the west, and returning to the Soviet Union for visit in 1933 he was delighted by the reception he received. His works were still being played in the concert hall and, moreover there came a major commission from the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (which materialized as the wonderfully lyrical ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and an invitation to write the music for a satirical comedy film ‘Lieutenant Kije’ .
Full of delicious tunes and very easy on the ear, these endearingly popular works represented a notable change of style for Prokofiev. Three years later he was back living in Moscow with his wife Lina and two sons.
A strong character, he was able to weather the vagaries of officialdom, (essentially dictated by the whim of Stalin). And although it seems he eventually deserted Lina and composed the obligatory patriotic rhetoric, he matched this with works of enduring artistic merit, not least the Fifth Symphony which so deeply affected the war weary Moscow audience at the first performance in 1945, and the magnificent opera based on Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. Life in Russia at that time was not easy for anyone.
To get the feel of the man I listened first to the music of ‘Peter and the Wolf’, and then to his ‘Suite No. 1, Opus 64 A, ‘The Balcony Scene’ from ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
The music of the latter portrays one of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes, which begins with Romeo’s ‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’
Shimmering chords and high violin notes evoke an enchanted moonlit night. Then earthier interruptions from lower wind and brass instruments give way to a luscious melody, with swooping horns and cellos, as Romeo’s love pours forth.
The music then becomes urgent and stormy – reflecting the doomed lovers’ fate – before returning to the tender ecstasies of the opening, and ending peacefully.
At once familiar, lovely, and poignant, encompassing as it does the whole story in the nearly nine minutes of this one beautiful piece of music, it seemed to prepare me for their inevitable fate. So that with a degree of equilibrium I was able to listen with ease to the music of his ‘Opus 64 ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’.
In this scene from the ballet, Romeo discovers Juliet in her family vault. Believing her to be dead, he takes a fatal dose of poison. In fact Juliet has only taken a sleeping draught. She wakes and, finding Romeo dead, uses his dagger to take her own life.
The tragedy has inspired over fifty composers, but few have come as close to the atmosphere of the play as Prokofiev. With heart rending strings and dissonant brass, he conjures up the extremity of Romeo’s anguish.
After Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev danced the lead roles in 1972, the ballet has forever been associated with them.
Serge Prokofiev died on 5th March 1953, but the event was overshadowed by another passing on the same day– that of Josef Stalin. Prokofiev, the eternal ironist, would surely have appreciated the piquancy of that.