Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) showed precocious talent as a pianist and composer and had lessons from Glier from 1902. In 1904 he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov and Tcherepnin were among his teachers; Tcherepnin and Myaskovsky, who gave him valuable support, encouraged his interest in Skryabin, Debussy and Strauss. He had made his début as a pianist in 1908, quickly creating something of a sensation as an enfant terrible, unintelligible and ultra-modern - an image he was happy to cultivate. His intemperateness in his early piano pieces, and later in such works as the extravagantly Romantic Piano Concerto no.1 and the ominous no.2, attracted attention. Then in 1914 he left the conservatory and traveled to London, where he heard Stravinsky's works and gained a commission from Dyagilev: the resulting score was, however, rejected (the music was used to make the Scythian Suite); a second attempt, Chout, was not staged until 1921.

Meanwhile his gifts had exploded in several different directions. In 1917 he finished an opera on Dostoyevsky's Gambler, a violently involved study of obsession far removed from the fantasy of his nearly contemporary Chicago opera The Love for Three Oranges, written in 1919 and performed in 1921. Nor does either of these scores have much to do with his 'Classical' Symphony, self-consciously 18th-century in manner, and again quite distinct from his lyrical Violin Concerto no.1, written at the same period and in the same key. There were also piano sonatas based on old notebooks alongside the more adventurous Visions fugitives, all dating from 1915-19. Towards the end of this rich period, in 1918, he left for the USA; then from 1920 France became his base. His productivity slowed while he worked at his opera The Fiery Angel, an intense, symbolist fable of good and evil (it had no complete performance until after his death, and he used much of its music in Symphony no.3). After this he brought the harsh, heavy and mechanistic elements in his music to a climax in Symphony no.2 and in the ballet Le pas d'acier, while his next ballet, L'enfant prodigue, is in a much gentler style: the barbaric and the lyrical were still alternatives in his music and not fused until the 1930s, when he began a process of reconciliation with the Soviet Union.

The renewed relationship was at first tentative on both sides. Romeo and Juliet, the full-length ballet commissioned for the Bol'shoy, had its premiere at Brno in 1938, and only later became a staple of the Soviet repertory: its themes of aggression and romantic love provided, as also did the Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky, a receptacle for Prokofiev's divergent impulses. Meanwhile his own impulse to remain a Westerner was gradually eroded and in 1936 he settled in Moscow, where initially his concern was with the relatively modest genres of song, incidental music, patriotic cantata and children's entertainment (Peter and the Wolf, 1936). He had, indeed, arrived at a peculiarly unfortunate time, when the drive towards socialist realism was at its most intense; and his first work of a more ambitious sort, the opera Semyon Kotko was not liked.

With the outbreak of war, however, he perhaps found the motivation to respond to the required patriotism: implicitly in a cycle of three piano sonatas (nos.6-8) and Symphony no. 5, more openly in his operatic setting of scenes from Tolstoy's War and Peace, which again offered opportunities for the two extremes of his musical genius to be expressed. He also worked at a new full-length ballet, Cinderella. In 1946 he retired to the country and though he went on composing, the works of his last years have been regarded as a quiet coda to his output. Even his death was outshone by that of Stalin on the same day.


Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | February 27, 2000