Sergei Prokofiev

Biography

Born: Apr 23, 1891; Russia   Died: Mar 5, 1953; Russia   Period: 20th Century
In breathing new life into the symphony, sonata, and concerto, Sergey Prokofiev emerged as one of the truly original musical voices of the twentieth century. Bridging the worlds of pre-revolutionary Russia and the Stalinist Soviet Union, Prokofiev enjoyed a successful worldwide career as composer and pianist. As in the case of most other Soviet-era composers, his creative life and his music came to suffer under the duress of official Party Read more strictures. Still, despite the detrimental personal and professional effects of such outside influences, Prokofiev continued until the end of his career to produce music marked by a singular skill, inventiveness, and élan.

As an only child (his sisters had died in infancy), Prokofiev lived a comfortable, privileged life, which gave him a heightened sense of self-worth and an indifference to criticism, an attitude that would change as he matured. His mother taught him piano, and he began composing around the age of five. He eventually took piano, theory, and composition lessons from Reyngol'd Gliere, then enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when he was 13. He took theory with Lyadov, orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov, and became lifelong friends with Nicolai Myaskovsky. After graduating, he began performing in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, then in Western Europe, all the while writing more and more music. Prokofiev's earliest renown, therefore, came as a result of both his formidable pianistic technique and the works he wrote to exploit it. He sprang onto the Russian musical scene with works like the Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1912-1914), and Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-1917), and his first few piano sonatas. He also wrote orchestral works, concertos, and operas, and met with Diaghilev about producing ballets. The years immediately after the Revolution were spent in the U.S., where Prokofiev tried to follow Rachmaninov's lead and make his way as a pianist/composer. His commission for The Love for Three Oranges came from the Chicago Opera in 1919, but overall Prokofiev was disappointed by his American reception, and he returned to Europe in 1922. He married singer Lina Llubera in 1923, and the couple moved to Paris. He continued to compose on commission, meeting with mixed success from both critics and the public. He had maintained contact with the Soviet Union, even toured there in 1927. The Love for Three Oranges was part of the repertory there, and the government commissioned the music for the film Lieutenant Kijé and other pieces from him. In 1936, he decided to return to the Soviet Union with his wife and two sons. Most of his compositions from just after his return, including many for children, were written with the political atmosphere in mind. One work which wasn't, was the 1936 ballet Romeo and Juliet, which became an international success. He attempted another opera in 1939, Semyon Kotko, but was met with hostility from cultural ideologues. During World War II, Prokofiev and other artists were evacuated from Moscow. He spent the time in various places within the U.S.S.R. and produced propaganda music, but also violin sonatas, his "War Sonatas" for piano, the String Quartet No. 2, the opera War and Peace, and the ballet Cinderella. In 1948, with the resolution that criticized almost all Soviet composers, several of Prokofiev's works were banned from performance. His health declined and he became more insecure. The composer's last creative efforts were directed largely toward the production of "patriotic" and "national" works, typified by the cantata Flourish, Mighty Homeland (1947), and yet Prokofiev also continued to produce worthy if lesser-known works like the underrated ballet The Stone Flower (1943). In a rather bitter coincidence, Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin. Read less

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3, Symphony No 5 / Matsuev, Gergiev
Release Date: 03/11/2014   Label: Mariinsky  
Catalog: 549   Number of Discs: 1
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Prokofiev: Peter & the Wolf; Saint-Saens, Bizet / Gielgud, Licata
Release Date: 10/13/2009   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28450   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 3; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 2 / Wang, Dudamel, Simon Bolivar SO
Release Date: 10/08/2013   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 001910202   Number of Discs: 1
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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3; Bartok: Piano Concerto No 2 / Lang Lang
Release Date: 10/22/2013   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 373225   Number of Discs: 1
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Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel / Gergiev, Gorchakova, Leiferkus, Mariinsky Theater
Release Date: 03/25/2014   Label: Arthaus Musik  
Catalog: 100391   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78

 

About This Work
Prokofiev and the celebrated film director, Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), managed to survive the purges that decimated Russian intellectual life under Stalin. Together, they made two historically significant films: Alexander Nevsky in 1938, and Ivan Read more the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2 (No. 3 never got beyond preproduction). Worsening relations between Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. decided Stalin to sponsor a film about Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth century prince of Novgorod, who routed Swedish invaders in 1240 at the river Neva (hence his name) and two years later defeated a horde of Teutonic Knights at Lake Chud (aka Peipus), on what is today the Estonian border. Eisenstein offered to direct and persuaded Prokofiev to score the film. Ironically, because Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression treaty before Nevsky was ready for release, it was deep-sixed in the Soviet Union, although not elsewhere. Only after Hitler attacked the U.S.S.R. was the film repatriated as a propaganda tool, by which time Prokofiev had reworked sections of his soundtrack score into a "dramatic cantata" with texts by himself and V. Lugovskoy. Prokofiev conducted the Moscow premiere on May 17, 1939.

In "Russia under the Mongolian yoke," high and low registers of the orchestra accompanied Eisenstein's stark panoramas of bones, skulls, discarded weapons, wasted fields, and sacked villages in the wake of marauding tartars; music at once eerie, archaic and despairing.

The "Song about Alexander Nevsky" is an uncomplicated telling of Prince Alexander's defeat of invading Swedes "on the wide waters of the River Neva" in 1240, abetted by local peasants armed with axes and improvised weapons. A quicker middle section (Più mosso) effectively recreates the sounds of battle.

In "The Crusaders in Psko" swaggering, scornful Teuton invaders sing Latin words not easy to translate, perhaps because Prokofiev intended them to be onomatopoeic rather than narrative. An A minor middle section for legato strings, which are asked to play "expressively and sadly," hardens before the Crusaders quell a spirit of insurrection.

"Arise, Russian people" exhorts them to defend, in the populist style mastered by Prokofiev, plainly tuneful but nonetheless perfervid, with a new melody in the middle section that returns triumphantly in the fifth and seventh movements.

"The battle on the ice" is the longest of the movements and stunningly graphic without needing film to be effective. The Crusaders, shouting their Latin battle cry, ride wildly against Nevsky's force, who sing "In our great native Russia no foe shall live...." The breakup of the ice is a terrifying sound, far surpassing a small studio orchestra and constricted mono sound on the original soundtrack.

In "The field of the dead" the mezzo-soprano soloist becomes a Russian girl, looking for the body of her lover slain in battle. She vows to kiss the eyelids of all who died, and to wed a "brave" survivor rather than a "handsome man."

A recapitulation of Russian themes celebrates "Alexander's entry into Pskov" and rejoices in Nevsky's victory, as appropriate in World War II and after as Stalin meant the film to be in 1937.

-- Roger Dettmer
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