Born: April 27, 1891 – Sontsovka, Russian Empire (Ukraine)
Died: March 5, 1953 – Moscow, USSR
Inspired by his mother’s piano playing Sergei Prokofiev wrote his first piano piece, an “Indian Gallop”, at the age of five. His first opera, The Giant, premiered at his uncle’s house in 1899 – he was nine years old! At eleven under the tutelage of Rheinhold Glière he attempted to write his first symphony.
He went on to write 9 more operas, 6 more symphonies, 9 Ballets, 8 Film scores, 4 theatre scores, 11 concerti (6 piano, 2 violin, 3 cello), 11 piano sonatas, 6 chamber pieces, 9 cantatas, and innumerable choral, instrumental and orchestral suites based on larger pieces he had written.
Though he forged a career in the West from 1918 until 1936 Prokofiev was never content living outside Russia. His early triumphs, The Love of Three Oranges, The Prodigal Son, the Piano Concerto #3 had brought him some success but his role as a concert pianist overshadow his work as a composer outside of the Soviet Union.
In 1925 Stalin was in desperate need of celebrities and began to court artists who had left in the early years of the Revolution. Prokofiev had never thought of his time in the West as permanent and knew that eventually he would return home. However his wife Lina was Spanish, he had two sons born in Paris and he realized that the Soviet Union was not a free society. But by 1936 homesickness and the tempting promises of commissions, performances, royalties, a fine apartment, a chauffeur and freedom of travel convinced him to move to Moscow with his family. He made his pact with the Devil. It was one that he lived to regret, as within a year many of those promises had been broken.
Prokofiev was an avid master chess player. In 1937 the Central Art Workers’ Club hosted a tournament between the composer and violinist David Oistrakh, another chess enthusiast. Ten matches were scheduled but after the seventh Oistrakh conceded victory to Prokofiev. The victor won the Club Cup and the loser had to give a concert for the Club.
From 1944 to 1958 one of the most popular shows on American radio was introduced by the March from The Love for Three Oranges. Somehow the irony of The FBI in Peace and War using a work by a Communist composer as its theme was lost on the CBS executives and radio audience alike. And double irony that it was nicknamed The FBI March and became a favourite of high school bands throughout the U.S. during the Cold War.
Prokofiev scored Alexander Nevsky (1938), Sergei Eisenstein’s first sound picture, and went on to create the music for his Ivan the Terrible (1942-6). They were true collaborations: some of the footage was shot to Prokofiev’s score and some of the score was composed to Eisenstein’s footage. The filmmaker observed that Prokofiev was able to grasp the emotional mood, rhythm, and structure of a scene immediately and produce scoring the next day. Both pieces have been reworked into oratorios: Nevsky by the composer in 1939 and Ivan by his assistant Levon Atovmyan in 1961.
Peter and the Wolf is Prokofiev’s most performed and recorded work and one of the most performed pieces of classical music in the world. This ‘symphonic fairy tale for children’ was intended to introduce them to the instruments of the orchestra and as Soviet propaganda for the virtues of becoming a Young Pioneer! The Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky first recorded it in 1939. There are currently 60 recordings in the catalogue; amongst the narrators are Eleanor Roosevelt, Captain Kangaroo, David Bowie, Sharon Stone, Mikhail Gorbachev with Sophia Loren and Bill Clinton, Alice Cooper and Dave Tennant.
The report of Prokofiev’s death on March 5, 1953 appeared on page 116 of the March 8th edition of the Musicians’ Union newspaper. The preceding 115 pages were taken up with hymns of praise and threnodies of grief for Josef Stalin who had died the same day. Prokofiev lived near Red Square and it was impossible for the small group of mourners to navigate the streets because of the millions of people determined to see Stalin lying in state. No flowers were available to dress the coffin – they had all been commandeered for the Leader’s funeral – but neighbours donated potted plants.
His estranged wife Lina was serving a sentence in the Gulag and found out about his death weeks later when Government radio broadcast a programme of his music. A letter from their son telling her of her husband’s death reached her months later but oddly with the reference to Stalin’s death the same day blacked out.