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Sergei Prokofiev

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A portrait of Sergei Prokofiev.

One of the first pieces of classical music that many children are exposed to is 'Peter and the Wolf', Op 671, by Sergei Prokofiev. It is an orchestral piece with a narration, telling the story of a boy called Peter, and his adventures one day when he encounters a wolf. Each of the characters in the story is represented by an instrument or group of instruments with their own particular themes. The piece is used to familiarise children with the instruments of the orchestra.

Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergei Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, Ukraine. He was an only child, and his mother, an amateur pianist, encouraged him musically. He first composed at the age of five.

In 1904 he went to the St Petersburg Conservatory to study piano and composition. While there, he gained a reputation as an 'enfant terrible'. During his time there, he prompted the director, Glazunov, to walk out of a performance of the 'Scythian Suite', Op 20, because he feared for his sense of hearing.

After the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev travelled to America, with the permission of the authorities2. At first, he was very successful, touring as a pianist, as well as with music he had composed, like his 'classical' symphony, 'Symphony no 1 in D', Op 25, and the 'Scythian Suite'. However in 1920 he moved to Paris, and remained there until 1936.

When he returned to Moscow, he was just in time for the Communist crack down on music that did not meet Stalinist ideals. In 1948 he and Dmitri Shostakovich as well as several other Russian composers were made to publicly sign a confession, saying that their music was bourgeois and 'formalist', that is, not trying to represent the feelings of the mass of people.

Prokofiev died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin, as such he was unable to benefit from the relaxation of government policy towards the arts.

Prokofiev's Musical Style

Click here to listen to a clip from Prokofiev's 'Lieutenant Kije'.

Prokofiev himself characterised his style with 'five lines'; five ideas that underpin the majority of his music. These are:

  • Classical Line: Prokofiev's music often gives the impression of music from the Classical Period in music3. For example, his 'Classical Symphony' is very similar in form and style to symphonies by composers such as Haydn, but has some more modern features very characteristic of Prokofiev.

  • Modernist Line: Prokofiev's music often features decidedly un-classical elements too. This was especially evident in some of his earlier work, for example the 'Scythian Suite', but it is also evident in other works, in his use of 'wrong' notes in harmony.

  • Lyrical Line: Prokofiev was a master of melody. Examples of his lyrical line are the 'Romance' movement from 'Lieutenant Kijé', Op 60, and the ballet 'Romeo and Juliet', Op 64.

  • Toccata Line: 'Toccata' is Italian for touch and is a piece of keyboard music where the player just has time to touch the keys. In Prokofiev's work, this is seen in the occurrence of motor rhythms, very fast, and very energetic. An example can be found in one of the themes in the first movement of his '3rd Piano Concerto in C' Op 26.

  • Grotesque Line: Prokofiev would rather have had this known as humorous or not considered a major part of his style at all, but he listed it as people studying his music had identified it. The 'Grotesque' features a lot of the way through 'Lieutenant Kijé', a suite taken from music written for a film. The film Lieutenant kijé was set in Tsarist Russia and poked fun at the establishment of the time. A clerical error created an extra Lieutenant, Kijé, who the Tsar happened to single out for some honour. However, no one would admit that Kijé didn't exist, so they had to make excuses up about why he didn't go to meet the Tsar. The music illustrates the farce of the situation.

1'Op 67' is short for Opus number 67. Opus numbers are assigned to pieces of music to catalogue them.2This was somewhat exceptional. Stravinsky and Rakhmaninov both went to America without permission, to be free of the Communist regime.3c.1750 - 1810. See A brief history of Western Music.

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