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Sergei Prokofiev



Born in 1891 in Sontsovka, Russia, Sergei Prokofiev was taught the piano from the age of three by his mother. He was a talented child and had written an opera by the age of nine. After two years of private study with the composer Reinhold Glière, he entered the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1904, aged only 13. There he studied harmony and counterpoint with Anatoli Liadov, orchestration with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the piano with A. Winkler.

Whilst a student he developed something of a reputation as an enfant terrible, both for his compositions and his playing. Many of his works written whilst studying were published and have become cornerstones of the repertory, including his first two piano sonatas Op.1 and Op.14 (1909 and 1912 respectively) and his First Piano Concerto in D flat major Op.10 (1911-12).

In early 1914, he travelled to London and Paris, where he met Sergei Diaghilev. Despite the critics' universally hostile treatment of Prokofiev's music, Diaghilev commissioned a ballet, Ala et Lolly, from him for the Ballets Russes. Unfortunately World War I interrupted their plans, but the music survives as the Scythian Suite Op.20. On his travels, he had also come into contact with the music of Stravinsky. About the time that the older composer was introducing Neo-classical ideas into his own music, Prokofiev produced his First Symphony (Classical). The symphony was premiered in St Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in 1918. Soon after the civil war broke out later that year, Prokofiev left Russia for the USA. There, Chicago Opera commissioned his The Love for Three Oranges.

In 1920, the 29-year-old Prokofiev moved to Paris. There he once again made Diaghilev's acquaintance and went on to write three ballets for the great impresario, The Buffoon Op.21 (Chout, 1915 rev. 1920), The Age of Steel Op.41 (Les Pas d'acier, 1925 - 6) and The Prodigal Son Op.46 (L'Enfant prodigue, 1928-9). He also had several of his orchestral works performed in the concert series conducted by another Russian émigré, Sergei Koussevitsky.

Even though he was very successful, Prokofiev was never at home in the west. His tours as a pianist took him back to Russia in 1927 and 1929, and he finally returned there in 1933. Despite the accessibility of his music and favourable public and official receptions, he did not stay clear of official condemnation in Zhdanov's infamous declaration of 1948. After his return to Russia, he wrote three more ballets. Two of these, Romeo and Juliet Op.64 (1935-6) and Cinderella Op. 87 (1940-4), have become two of the greatest of all ballets, the third, The Stone Flower Op.118 (1948-53) is less well known.

Prokofiev's other works cover almost every conceivable medium and include seven symphonies (1917 - 1952), concertos for piano (no fewer than five), violin and cello, chamber music in the form of string quartets, piano sonatas, sonatas for violin and cello, choral works, songs and film music including Lieutenant Kijé (1934) and Alexander Nevsky (1938). He died in Moscow in 1953. The loss of this great composer was over-shadowed by the death of the tyrannical soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on the same day.

3 August 2004

Tombeaux

Maureya Lebowitz and William Bracewell

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