Prokofiev? Never heard of him!

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On the 5th March 1953, two remarkable Soviet citizens died. One was Josef Stalin, whose dictatorial hand had held the USSR in its vice like grip for nearly 30 years. The other was the prolific composer Prokofiev.

Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born on April 23 (old style1 April 11) in 1891 in Santovka in the Ukraine. His music demonstrates a number of different styles, some of which are described over here
. While he became posthumously recognised (along with Shostakovich et al) for depicting and protesting about life under Stalin through his music, he was not amongst the most avant garde of 20th century composers. His music is, however, supremely tuneful and memorable, and many pieces are well known to the man on the Clapham omnibus, even if he claims he's never heard of old Sergei.

Music for children

Peter and the Wolf is familiar to many as a means of introducing young listeners to the different instruments in the orchestra. It acheives this by assigning a different motif to each of the characters in the story, which is also narrated in between the musical excerpts. The cat has a lovely meowly and playful tune played on the clarinet, the bird is rather obvioulsy (some might suggest unimaginatively?) portrayed by the flute, with gruff grandfather represented by the basoon. Many famous actors have narrated the tale over the years, including Sting, Sir Ralph Richardson and er...Wierd Al Yankovich.

Lietenant Kije is the tale of a "made-up" soldier (the name derives from the Russian for don't know). The Troika (sleigh-ride) from this piece is ubiquitous at Christmas time, and was quoted musically in Greg Lake's "I believe in Father Christmas" 2. Still in the realms of pop, Sting used part of Kije in his song "Russians". Other parts of the same piece have acheieved fame and glory as theme tunes for TV shows and in film soundtracks. Woody Allen's "Love and Death" (1975) uses much of Lt Kije as well as the Alexander Nevsky suite.

Big and bouncy

His sense of drama and passion are best heard in the Montagues and Capulets theme from Romeo and Juliet (which rhythmically bounces up and down to the phrasing of the words "Mon-ta-gues and Cap-u-lets"), and which was chosen by Scott from Big Brother 4 as his superhero theme tune in his disguise as Couch Potato Guy 3. The march from the Love for 3 Oranges has been often used in TV and moviescores, for example "The FBI in Peace and War".

Pass the Kleenex, Doreen

Prokofiev's romantic side is most obvious in his concertos, which many listeners find move them to tears. Themes from piano concertos 1,2 and 3, and violin concertos 1 and 2, will be hummed by many who couldn't name that tune.

Did you know?

He was a child prodigy, and composed his first opera at the age of 9. In his spare time, he was a brilliant pianist and chess player. He was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein 4to write a piano concereto (No 4 in Bflat major) to be played entirely with the left hand. Wittgenstein jhad lost his right arm during the first World War. However, he returned the score to Prokofiev, claiming that it was unplayable. indeed, it reamined unplayed and unpublisehd until its premiere in Berlin in 1956, given by Siegfried Rapp, who had lost HIS right arm during World War 2.
And while we're on the subject of one-handedness, young Prokofiev was often bullied, and once had to carry out a forfeit which involved asking his tutor Rimsky-Korsakov if the latter indulged in onanism - a forfiet which he carried out and received the reply "Of course! What do you think I am, abnormal?"
1The late changeover to the Gregorian calendar meant that Russia had to catch up by 11 days when the switch was finally made in 19182Emmerson Lake and Palmer had a tradition of updating classical music, most famously with Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"3"I have to remote control people. I am vegged out for the good of the common man"4brother of the philosopher

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