The Kennedy Center

Sergei Prokofiev


Prokofiev was born in 1891 in the Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. His mother, who had a keen musical sense, taught him to play the piano. By the age of five he hadwritten his first composition. In 1904 Prokofiev moved to St. Petersburg and was accepted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the youngest student ever to be admitted.

Disenchanted with the music of the early Russian composers like Glinka and Mussorgsky, Prokofiev had an intense interest in new music, drawing inspiration from the composers Reger and Scriabin. Throughout his career he would push the limits of his compositions, while provoking and shocking listeners and critics. After a decade at the Conservatory, Prokofiev set off for the West in 1914 to learn more about the successes of Stravinsky, Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and to make a name for himself.

Following Czar Nicholas II's overthrow, Prokofiev returned to Petrograd in the Spring of 1918, where he premiered his first symphonic piece, the Classical Symphony (1917.) The work was warmly accepted. Later in 1918, Prokofiev traveled to New York where he was regarded as a product of the emerging Bolshevik state—his playing was often described as barbaric. In the early twenties, he returned to Paris where he completed the ballet Le Pas d'Acier (1926) for Diaghilev.

When Prokofiev returned to his homeland in 1927, he was celebrated as a Russian hero whose revolutionary music had conquered the West. Shortly after, Prokofiev returned to Paris and created the ballet The Prodigal Son (1929) for Diaghilev. In 1932 Prokofiev was back in the Soviet Union and in 1936 became a permanent Moscow resident. During that same year he wrote the orchestral work Peter and the Wolf, that introduces children to instruments in the orchestra. The Soviet Union?s rapprochement in 1939 with Germany severed ties with the Allies. Prokofiev?s role as music ambassador abroad was no longer needed. Due to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin ordered all senior cultural leaders out of Moscow—Prokofiev was among those named to leave Moscow for the Caucasus.

Despite harsh war conditions, Prokofiev remained prolific. Between 1940 and 1944 he completed his war sonatas for piano (No. 6, 7, 8) and wrote the sweeping opera, War and Peace (1952), based on Tolstoy's monumental novel. Prokofiev completed his Fifth Symphony in 1944 and his ballet, Cinderella, premiered on the Bolshoi stage in 1945.

With the onset of the Cold War, Stalin further isolated his people from the West, reaffirming the superiority of Communist orthodoxy in culture and ideology. In 1948, Prokofiev was denounced as too cosmopolitan and formalist. His final substantive work is his Symphony No. 7 (1952). Prokofiev passed away on March 5, 1953, on the same day as Stalin.
Sergei Prokofiev


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