Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is known for being slightly eccentric, a little romantic, quite avant-garde, and extremely gifted . He composed all kinds of pieces in a wide variety of musical genres ranging from symphonies to piano sonatas to ballets. Overall he was rather brilliant (music and otherwise), and he is one of my most favorite composers because of his beautiful harmonic language and unique melodies.
Born in what is now eastern Ukraine, young Prokofiev first took an interest in music when his mother began taking piano lessons. He heard her practicing music by composers such as Beethoven and Chopin, which inspired him to compose his first piece when he was five years old (sound familiar? Check out my post on another child prodigy, Mozart). He even composed his first opera, The Giant, by the time he was nine years old. The plot of said opera is based on the games he played with his childhood friends Egorka and Stenya (he even named characters in the opera after them), and the premier was given by his family at the estate of one of his uncles. Read more about it here.
*Side note: by the time Prokofiev was seven years old, he had mastered chess. The game remained a passion throughout his whole life, and he played – and occasionally beat – world chess champions at their own game. He also often played friend and fellow musician and chess master David Oistrakh. Read more here, and check out this super cool website that has a compilation of first-hand accounts (including his own diary entries) regarding Prokofiev, his chess games, and his music. And look at this super cute picture of young Prokofiev playing chess!
As he grew, Prokofiev began experimenting with more dissonant harmonies and strange time signatures and rhythms. Initially his parents didn’t really want to put him in a music school, but by the time he was 13 (and had already composed 2.5 more operas), he was accepted into the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, a prestigious music school (fun fact: several very famous Russian composers attended and taught at this conservatory, including Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Rimsky-Korsakov). He was, however, younger than most of the other kids in his class, and he was viewed as eccentric and proud by his classmates. Prokofiev’s dissonant harmonies and strange time signatures earned him the title of a music rebel, and his teachers didn’t think super highly of his works at the time. After he graduated from the Conservatory, he made a name for himself as a composer pianist. He spent his life composing and performing and conducting, and we now have his legacy as one of the greatest 20th century composers to remember him by.
Now let’s get into some of his music. When Prokofiev was 18 years old, he wrote/published/performed his op. 2, a set of four études (an étude is a short piece designed to improve technique or show off the technical skill of the performer) he specifically wrote to show off his impressive technical ability. Op. 2 no. 4, included below, demonstrates an early version of Prokofiev’s musical style through its almost jazzy rhythms and short, singable, “Russian” sounding melodies and some surprising harmonies to create drama.
Prokofiev’s experiments with dissonance continued into several other pieces (ex: Sarcasms for piano op. 17, his first two piano concertos), yet many of the old timers denounced this new, more modern, composition style. But he continued to compose and perform to an ever-increasing fan base.
In 1918, as Russian unrest became unavoidable, Prokofiev traveled to the USA and Western Europe where he resided until 1936, when he moved back to Russia. During this time, his more famous compositions include his third piano concerto (read here) and two more operas, The Love for Three Oranges (read more here) and The Fiery Angel (read more here), all written in his characteristically dissonant, rhythmic, and innovative style. Check an excerpt from The Love for Three Oranges below:
When he returned to Russia for good in 1936, his compositional language took a slight turn. Prokofiev was so happy to be back in his homeland that his works of this time have an almost Romantic sound – there is a new warmth in the harmonies and melodies. In fact, some of his most famous pieces were written during this time, including but not limited to:
- The ballet Romeo and Juliet (composed in 1935, read my post here for more information about this particular work):
- Lieutenant Kijé, film-music-turned-orchestral-suite written in 1933-34; read more here and skip to 13:20 for some charateriscically Prokofiev-infused Russian sounds:
- and Violin Concerto No. 2, a beautiful piece of music written in 1935 and surprisingly conventional, considering Prokofiev’s more daring style; the melodies are reminiscent of Russian folk music (more background and analysis here). The whole work is stunning, but skip to the second movement (12:29) for some truly breathtaking sounds:
Prokofiev’s composition style roughed up again during the Stalin years (Stalin was the “rule-by-fear” dictator of the USSR from 1929-1953; read more about him here). Prokofiev’s later piano sonatas, particularly nos. 6-8 (also known as the “War Sonatas”), are crammed full of energy and intensity. Check out his Piano Sonata No. 7, composed in 1942 (and sometimes called the Stalingrad; read more here) :
There is so much music by Prokofiev to discover that I can’t cover it all in one post, so stay tuned for more! We’ve barely scratched the surface of Prokofiev’s musical world. Which piece in today’s post did you enjoy the most?