Serge Prokofiev: a life in three movements

Born in Tsarist Russia, emigrated to the West, Prokofiev ended his career in the USSR. During these three great periods, he will have practiced all genres and left a phenomenal quantity of masterpieces. From the Classical Symphony to the monumental War and Peace, from the tumultuous Scythian Suite to the indestructible Peter and the Wolf, let’s listen again to some fabulous milestones marking out this creative existence which dominated the entire first 20th century with its lofty stature.

A symphony. Better, a concerto in three movements: thus one could summarize the destiny of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). The first episode shows him in Russia where, before the Revolution, he received a complete education at the conservatory of Saint Petersburg. He quickly established himself as a radical innovator: his piano compositions (various pieces, first sonatas, Concertos No. 1 And 2), there Scythian suite and the cantata They are seven bristle the conservative fringe.

Although revolutionary at heart, he emigrated in 1918, first to the United States, where The Love of Three Oranges and the Piano Concerto No. 3. This second movement continues in Europe (France and Germany), a period of twenty years punctuated by unequal fortunes, but always very productive. The passages at Diaghilev, in the footsteps of Stravinsky, bring ephemeral successes: Chout (The fool) in 1921, a ballet steeped in Russian folklore and, in 1927, The step of steel whose action, on a constructivist subject, takes place in a factory during war communism, a tribute to pro-Soviet fashion in France. Then came, in 1929, the volte-face of the biblical ballet The Prodigal Son. The 1920s also saw the composition of the Symphony No. 2 “made of iron and steel” and the monumental opera The Fiery Angel (created after his death). Another lyrical work, The playercomposed before the Revolution, had a single performance, in French, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1929.

Finally begins the third movement. After a first trip to the USSR in 1927, relations with the country became more and more regular during the 1930s, during which he received his first orders – the music for the film Lieutenant Kijeballet Romeo and Juliet. Imagining that he could continue to circulate freely between East and West, he went to Hollywood in 1938 to gain experience in composing for the cinema. Back in the USSR that same year, he signed the score forAlexander Nevsky for Eisenstein, before being definitively retained by the Soviet power. Cruel irony of history, he died in Moscow on March 5, 1953… the same day as Stalin!

Surprising Lumberjack

A definition as stereotypical as it is limiting would make Prokofiev a futuristic iconoclast, a sarcastic with an acid humor (didn’t he title one of his piano pieces Sarcasm ?), a dissonant rowdy – whom his piano teacher, the formidable Anna Essipova, called “my lumberjack”! There is certainly some truth to this, but how many other aspects are just as accurate in a multi-faceted portrait? In fact, one will find few composers so capable of doing absolutely what they want with the notes, passing from atonalism to tonal harmony, to popular or archaic modalism, with almost always the surprise offered by a note spicy, an unexpected turn, a chromatic intonation, or the disarmingly simple resolution of a quasi cluster. Shocks and bumps are followed by the most captivating melodies, the sentences harboring an emotion as deep as they are devoid of emphasis, where some folkloric turns of phrase can be recognized which are not, for all that, simple textual quotations. Prokofiev valued classical rigor and fit into it naturally. He made a few occasional incursions into polytonality, never into serialism, before being forced, during his Soviet years, to tone down his language. But he knew, in all circumstances, to remain himself.

In a production as vast and diverse as his, waste, inevitable, remains a very small minority. If a complete panorama of Prokofiev remains difficult to draw, should we not impute it, as often, to a lack of curiosity, perhaps deterred by a few works that are too striking? Those on which we are going to linger are to be taken as milestones, within a catalog covering more than four decades of creative activity.

Read more in issue 720 of Tuning forkcurrently on newsstands.

Serge Prokofiev: a life in three movements