Composer. He was the leading Soviet musician of his time. Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" (1918) is one of the most frequently performed symphonic works written in the 20th Century, and his orchestral fairy tale "Peter and the Wolf" (1936) is a beloved children's classic. Among Russian composers he is second only to Tchaikovsky as a creator of memorable melodies. He was also an outstanding pianist. Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka in the Ukraine. A child prodigy, he studied privately with composer Reinhold Gliere and attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1904 to 1914, where he took top honors in piano. While still a student Prokofiev made his professional debut as a keyboard virtuoso of groundbreaking originality. He was the first to treat the piano as more of a percussion instrument, a clean break from the Romantic and Impressionist style that proved vastly influential to modern piano technique. His early compositions were naturally intended to demonstrate his prowess: the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1911) and No. 2 (1913), the first four Piano Sonatas (written between 1909 and 1918), and such hair-raising pieces as "Suggestion Diabolique" (1908), "Toccata" (1911), "Sarcasms" (1916), and "Fugitive Visions" (1917). The dissonance and aggressiveness of these works infuriated the Russian musical establishment. Reviewing a Prokofiev recital, one critic carped, "If this is music, then I prefer agriculture". The young composer's notoriety attracted Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballet Russes. Diaghilev commissioned the ballet "Alla and Lolly" from him, only to reject the score as sounding too much like Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring". Never one to waste a note, Prokofiev reworked "Alla and Lolly" into a concert item, "The Scythian Suite" (1916). Its scandalous St. Petersburg premiere cemented Prokofiev's reputation as "The Bad Boy of Russian Music". The nickname spoke more for Czarist Russia's reactionary cultural climate than it did for Prokofiev's renegade tendencies, for at heart he was a traditionalist. Off-kilter harmonies, acerbic wit, and a motor-like rhythmic drive would always be key elements of his style. But his language was resolutely tonal, he worked within established forms, and as he matured he placed greater emphasis on his greatest natural gift, his melodic fecundity. The contradictions of his creative personality - at once modern and old-fashioned, serious and ironic, lyrical and savage - give Prokofiev's music its unique flavor. And they first crystallized in two masterpieces he wrote on the brink of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Violin Concerto No. 1, and the Symphony No. 1, which he dubbed the "Classical". The symphony is a delightful tongue-in-cheek homage to the 18th Century composer Franz Joseph Haydn who, as Prokofiev pointed out, was a keen musical prankster himself. The Revolution and ensuing Civil War made for lean times in the new Soviet Union, and in 1918 Prokofiev left the country for what he believed would be a short concert tour to make money. He was gone 18 years. During that period he lived mainly in Paris but also in Germany and the United States. Two of his most popular works, the brilliant Piano Concerto No. 3 and the opera "The Love for Three Oranges", were first performed in Chicago in 1921. He also renewed his association with Diaghilev, for whom he wrote the ballets "The Buffoon" (1921), "The Age of Steel" (1927), and "The Prodigal Son" (1929). Having enjoyed fame as an ultra-modernist in Russia, Prokofiev was disconcerted to find that musical trends in Western Europe were far more advanced and he struggled to catch up with several uneven opuses, including the Second and Third Symphonies (1924, 1929), the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos (both 1931), and the opera "The Fiery Angel", completed in 1927 but unperformed for many years. "The Prodigal Son" marked a turning point. The first of Prokofiev's ballets to enter the permanent repertoire, it revealed his striving for a warmer, more lyrical style, a direction he very successfully pursued with the "Lt. Kije Suite" (1934) and the Violin Concerto No. 2 (1935). Though cosmopolitan by nature, Prokofiev was not entirely happy in Europe and he slowly took steps to return to the Soviet Union, a move regarded with horror by his fellow Russian emigres. He became a Soviet citizen in 1927, established a part-time residence in Moscow four years later, and settled in the U.S.S.R. permanently in 1936. Self-centered and politically naive, Prokofiev never fully adjusted to life under Stalinism, and Stalin's cultural bureaucrats looked upon him with suspicion and resentment because of his long absence in the West. (He also refused to join the Communist Party). The World War II years brought further hardship. But he found renewed inspiration in his homeland and produced one masterpiece after another: "Peter and the Wolf", for which he wrote the story as well as the music; the wonderful ballets "Romeo and Juliet" (1938) and "Cinderella" (1945); the scores for Sergei Eisenstein's films "Alexander Nevsky" (1938) and "Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II" (1944, 1946); the profound, searching Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8 (all conceived in 1939 and premiered during the war); the operas "Betrothal in a Monastery" (1940) and "War and Peace" (first version, 1942); and the two Violin Sonatas (1944, 1946). Prokofiev considered his epic Symphony No. 5 (1945), which he called "A tribute to the human spirit", his finest achievement; after the "Classical" it is the most frequently performed of his symphonies. Regrettably, the stress of the times affected his health and he began showing symptoms of hypertension. In January 1945, just days after conducting the premiere of his Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev was overcome by dizziness, fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a serious concussion. For his remaining years he was a semi-invalid, frequently hospitalized and forbidden by his doctors from working more than an hour or two a day. His life was further complicated by the Communist Party's notorious 1948 "Resolution on Music". The major Soviet composers - Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and Prokofiev's closest friend, Nikolai Miaskovsky - were officially branded "Enemies of the People" for writing music that was "too complicated for the masses". They were stripped of their honors and positions and their music was temporarily banned. Even more tragically, Prokofiev's Spanish-born wife, from whom he was separated, was arrested on ludicrous charges of espionage and spent eight years in a Siberian labor camp. The composer never saw her again. Under these wretched circumstances Prokofiev managed to complete a handful of major works, among them the great Symphony No. 6 (1947), the Cello Sonata (1950), and the Piano Sonata No. 9 (1951). He also revised some earlier compositions he considered unsuccessful, notably the Symphony No. 4 of 1930 (based on themes from "The Prodigal Son"), and the 1935 Cello Concerto, which became the Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra in 1952. But most of the new music he wrote after 1948, including the Symphony No. 7 (1952) and the ballet "The Stone Flower" (1954), is bland and lacking vitality. Unlike Shostakovich and Khachaturian, Prokofiev would not live to see himself restored to official favor in his country. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 61, on the same day as his tormentor, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards