“The Steinway is a perfect instrument.”
Along with his contemporary Stravinsky and the younger Shostakovich, composer–pianist Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) stands as a prime 20th-century exemplar of the grand Russian tradition in music. Moreover, for all the bounding rhythms, sarcastic gestures and biting dissonances in much of his music, he was one of the great melodists of the modern age, his tunes whistled the world over. Born in 1891 in Sontsovka, Ukraine, Prokofiev was a precocious child, learning the piano and developing a zeal for chess at a very young age. He composed his first piano piece by age 5 and an opera before he was 10. After initial tutelage from the composer Glière (lessons he later disparaged as “square”), Prokofiev entered Saint Petersburg Conservatory in his early teens, the youngest student in his class; nonetheless, he earned an enduring reputation as arrogant and rebellious, an utter individual. Prokofiev’s initial mature compositions were short pieces for piano marked by chromaticisms and polytonality that scandalized listeners but earned him renown among admirers of modernist trends. His rhythmically hurtling yet tune-rich Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1912 was a prize-winner in Russia, sealing his early reputation.
In 1913, Prokofiev traveled to Paris and London, encountering Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who would commission a series of works from Prokofiev — starting with Chout (The Fool), which Ravel hailed as “a work of genius.” Relocating to the West in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev toured the U.S. as a pianist in 1918. American critics described the impressive “steel” in his fingers, though some were taken aback by his stylistic radicalisms. The New York Times reviewer, reeling from the pungent dissonances and whiplash rhythms of Prokofiev's Manhattan recital debut, said: “He is a psychologist of the uglier emotions: hate, contempt, rage — above all, rage — disgust, despair, mockery and defiance… Occasionally, there are moments of tenderness, exquisite jewels that briefly sparkle and then melt into seething undertow.” Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges premiered in Chicago in 1921 and yielded an instrumental hit with its “March.” After composing symphonies and operas in an expressionist vein, Prokofiev recorded his dazzling and ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 3 with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in 1932. He returned to record solo piano pieces, further documenting his style at the keyboard. His bridges to the Soviet Union were rebuilt with commissions by the likes of the Kirov Theatre (the ballet Romeo and Juliet). Homesick and enticed by promises of state support, Prokofiev returned permanently to the Soviet Union in 1936, his initial work there yielding the famous children’s work Peter and the Wolf. Adapting to Stalinist political realities, Prokofiev had to write patriotic stage works and other music designed for “the people.” But these years also produced his waltz-infused opera War and Peace and his score for Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, later repurposed as a dramatic cantata. In a new generation of performers — pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich – Prokofiev found proponents for his later instrumental music, including a trio of “War Sonatas” for piano.
Prokofiev continued to compose great works in the post-war years, including his dark-hued Symphony No. 6 and luminous ballet Cinderella. But, along with his colleagues Shostakovich, Myaskovsky and Khachaturian, Prokofiev was censured in the Zhdanov Decree of 1948 for what were deemed “anti-proletarian,” “formalist” tendencies in his music — for pursuing art for art’s sake rather than the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism. Many of Prokofiev’s works were banned by Soviet authorities, and his final years were difficult. He died on the same day as Stalin in 1953 — there were no flowers left for the composer’s funeral. Yet Gilels, Richter, Oistrakh and Rostropovich remained devoted to performing his music in the East and West. Later, conductor Valery Gergiev would do much to bring Prokofiev’s piano concertos, symphonies, ballets and, especially, his operas alive for new generations. — Bradley Bambarger