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Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

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Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born on 23 April 1891 on a remote country estate called Sontsovka, near the Ukrainian town of Yekaterinoslav (today Dnepropetrovsk) to a middle class family (his father was the estate manager). His mother, who herself had considerable musical talent, introduced Sergei from a very early age to music by her regular piano practice, and became his first piano teacher. She encouraged him as he showed signs of precociousness and he grew up believing he was a prodigy, who like Mozart developed innovative piano techniques and wrote his own mature compositions from a very early age, and had an unshakable believe in his own talents. He was also a lifelong “mama’s boy” who would frequently not understand his place in the world. He wrote his first opera when he was ten after a visit to Moscow where he saw Borodin’s Prince Igor and Gounod’s Faust.

On a stopover in Moscow, the ten year old Sergei auditioned for the musical giant of those days, Sergei Taneyev. He was so impressed that he recommended that Reinhold Gliere act as the young Prokofiev’s teacher of piano and music. For the two summers of 1902 and 1903, Gliere traveled to Sontsovka to teach the young Prokofiev, who displayed not only determination and liking for mathematics and chess, but was also very mischievous, playful and a very willful character. In 1904, with his mother, Sergei moved to St. Petersburg and, upon Glazounov's urgent recommendation, was entered for the Conservatory. Prokofiev took his entry exams in front of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazounov, and Anatoly Lyadov in the fall of 1904 and was the youngest student ever to be admitted. He studied composition with Lyadov, piano with Anna Essipova, orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov, and later conducting with Cherepnin.

At the conservatory, Sergei was a difficult student—an “enfant terrible”-- who did not fit in as he thought his talents far superior to his classmates, and his skills, ambition and mischievousness often landed him in trouble. In 1906 he met Nikolai Myaskovsky –some ten years his elder—and they became lifelong friends. From the start they both shared a common taste in the modern music of the day, Max Reger, Alexander Scriabin, and Richard Strauss. They attended concerts and recitals together, played duets together, and Myaskovsky encouraged Sergei’s interest in literature. They supported each other’s music and often tried out their new compositions on each other. The world was introduced to Prokofiev's commanding piano virtuosity on 18 December 1908, when he first performed at the St Petersburg Evenings of Contemporary Music.

Throughout his ten years at the Conservatory, Prokofiev continued to compose – his First and Second Piano Concertos date from this period – and he began to concertize. He won the Rubenstein prize when he presented his First Piano Concerto as his graduation piece in 1914.

Upon graduation, Prokofiev went on his first foreign tour, trying to reproduce the success of Stravinsky by attracting the attention of Diaghilev to his music. He returned to Russia with a contract for a new ballet. As a young man looking to make a splash, even a scandal as Stravinsky had with ‘Rite of Spring’, he set out deliberately to produce in ‘Ala and Lolly’ a work which would shock and capture for him the acclaim Stravinsky enjoyed. Diaghilev rejected this first effort, but had sufficient faith in Prokofiev's talent to immediately commission another ballet to replace this – ‘Chout’ ('The Buffoon')

Back in Russia the musical prodigy, but one who did not take much notice of the world around him or how politics touched him, buried himself for almost five years in a very intense period of composition during World War I and the early Revolution. He was not earning much success, nor money, from his compositions, but ideas flowed out of him: his First Violin Concerto, the opera ‘The Gambler’, the ballets ‘Ala and Lolly’ (which he rewrote into the Scythian Suite) and ‘Chout’, the ‘Visions Fugitives’ piano tableaux, his third and fourth piano sonatas, and the Classical Symphony. Conditions around him in Russia steadily deteriorated. Finally, after temporarily joining his mother in the Caucasus, he left for Petrograd and in May 1918 he took the Trans-Siberian train to Vladivostok, whence he sailed to America via Japan.

He arrived in America with an already impressive collection of compositions completed, works which are acknowledged as among the landmarks of 20th century modern music. But America’s taste was more conservative and at that time it admired Rachmaninov and his romantic music. He only ever gained acclaim in Chicago where he introduced the Scythian Suite and the opera, Love for Three Oranges. In New York, he fell seriously ill and when he recovered in 1919 he met his future wife, a Spanish opera singer named Lina Llubera, whom he married finally in Europe in 1924.

Disappointed by his reception, Prokofiev moved on to Europe, where he was reunited with his mother who had fled Russia via Constantinople. Initially he enjoyed the joint championship of Diaghilev and the conductor Koussevitzky, and had a number of successes with his ballets (notably ‘Le pas d'acier’ and ‘Prodigal Son’) and with his Piano Concerto No 3 and his Symphony No 3 (the latter based on themes from his opera, ‘The Fiery Angel’). However it was opera in which he most desired success, a success which was to almost entirely elude him save for ’Love for Three Oranges’. All throughout his time in the West he promoted Myaskovsky's music, persuading conductors to perform it in Western Europe and in America. In 1924 Prokofiev had his first son with Lina, but late that same year his mother died.

The new Soviet Union, eager to get some cultural legitimacy, throughout the 1920s tried to lure Prokofiev to return permanently. Sergei wanted to return, but he was not aware of the political dimensions of the emerging Soviet cultural industry. A concert tour was arranged for 1927 where the returning Prokofiev was lionized and richly rewarded. His music was applauded as revolutionary and anti-bourgeois – although it was not really appreciated by the authorities. Myaskovsky was in an important position as the head of the music criticism apparatus to promote his friend’s music. The main aim of the tour for the Soviets was a propaganda coup – and Prokofiev fell for the adulation. Although he returned to Europe, he signed up to a second tour in 1929 which was not nearly as successful.

In the meanwhile, Prokofiev was beginning to have champions for his music in America. Serge Koussevitzky in Boston introduced all of his major works from the 1920s and promoted them. That and his success in Chicago led to another US tour in 1930. The Wall Street crash of 1929, however, had an adverse effect on cultural activity both in the US and particularly in Europe, and it became increasingly difficult for Prokofiev to make a living as a composer - most of all in his favored genre of opera. Again he was tempted to return for a third tour to the Soviet Union in 1932. Even though the second tour had demonstrated to him the political dangers swirling around the cultural world in Moscow — he had been accused of anti Soviet ideas — he plunged in naively. Myaskovsky was already having political difficulties with his compositions then, but still he encouraged Prokofiev to return.

From 1932 to 1936, while still living in Paris, Prokofiev made several more visits to the Soviet Union, which now had a very conscious strategy of getting him to emigrate back and to capture once and for all. They promised him money, an apartment and car, continuing foreign tours, and most important the Soviet Union started sending him commissions. These produced the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Peter and the Wolf’. When he finally did move in 1936 he moved into the darkest days of Stalinist repression in Russia, and almost at once he was compelled to toe the Soviet line of cultural and especially musical output. Life was harsh on him and his wife and two sons, even though he continued to compose. The authorities allowed him his last tour to the US in 1939 and for the rest of his life was no longer let out of the USSR. After the war broke out he was evacuated from Moscow but — by now in a relationship with a young literary student, Mira Mendelson — he left his wife Lina behind with their two sons.

Prokofiev responded during the war years with a very intense period of composition in which he tried to make conform to Stalin’s dictates of style. It was difficult to do – and he fell in constant political criticism in spite of the effort, cultural work was politically dangerous. He turned to film scores where he produced some of his best beloved works. He was evacuated to the Caucasus with his old friend Myaskovsky and other leading composers and later he was moved on to Central Asia. During the war he produced the Sonata ¹ 2 for violin and piano, the opera War and Peace, the Fifth Symphony, and the ballet Cinderella. His music, especially his piano works, was championed by the young Soviet pianists, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, and later the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich became an enthusiastic promoter of Prokofiev’s works. The Fifth Symphony won him a Stalin prize, the country’s highest honor.

But the heavy work was exhausting. His health was already weakened – he had had a heart attack in 1941-- when he had a fall and serious concussion in early 1945. For the rest of his life he would suffer high blood pressure and migraines. And to compound his woes, the political persecutions began again after the war. The state annulled his marriage to Lina, because she as a foreigner was an enemy of the people, and then sent her for 8 years to the gulag. Prokofiev married a second wife in 1948, Mira Mendelson, who had helped him and accompanied him through the war evacuation period.

In 1948, Prokofiev, just as Myaskovsky, fell foul of the Zhdanov cultural repression. He virtually retired even though he continued to compose fitfully. In the final years, he spent his time in the dacha at Nikolina Gora, where he looked after the health of his dying friend Myaskovsky who had a neighboring dacha. After Myaskovsky’s death in 1950, composition became more difficult and his last major work was the somber and dark Seventh Symphony which he completed in 1952. Its public debut was also Prokofiev’s last public appearance.

Prokofiev’s music proved to be more durable and resistant to the Soviet repression than Myaskovsky’s. He had champions who survived him in the USSR and he had many followers and promoters in America and Europe. Much of his work was published in the West and came to be recognized after the war as a lasting contribution to the great works of the 20th century. The Zhdanov repression by contrast suppressed Myaskovsky’s music in a way that it never really recovered from.

Unfortunately after nearly 17 years of persecution by Stalin, Prokofiev’s health failed him and he died on 5 March 1953, only about an hour before Stalin. The bitter irony was that no one at the time could observe his death. It was not publicly announced. There were no flowers in all Moscow for Prokofiev’s funeral and most people felt compelled to attend Stalin’s funeral. He was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery near the graves of Scriabin, Taneyev, and his old friend Nikolai Myaskovsky.

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