Sergei Prokofiev, the composer who fled the USSR for the U.S. – and back
April 23 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Prokofiev, the outstanding Russian composer. His work today remains among the world’s most popular classical music, along with the Viennese classics and German romantic-era composers.
These days “Dance of the Knights” from the ballet Romeo and Juliet or Natasha's waltz from the opera War and Peace are used in computer games, or as phone ringtones, yet only 50 years ago, his music was considered innovative and daring.
Prokofiev’s fate seems like a paradox – but only at first glance. Born in an era of global upheavals, he was interested in only one thing – music, his own music.
If Prokofiev had lived in our time of never-ending TV shows, he definitely would have had to answer the question: "What would you do, if you weren’t a composer?" And he might reply: "I was an outstanding pianist, I beat Cuban grandmaster Capablanca at chess, but ever since I was young I’ve strived to become the world’s most performed composer."
In one of his first photos, you can see a nine-year-old boy in a sailor suit sitting in front of a piano. On the music sheets there is a clearly distinguishable inscription: “The opera Giant by Sergei Prokofiev.”
Two years later a successful young composer, Reinhold Glière, was invited to teach composition to the child. The composer’s mother, who was a great musician herself and firmly believed in her son’s great future, brought Prokofiev at the age of 13 from a remote Russian province to St. Petersburg. He entered the Conservatory, where he studied under the best musicians of his time, among whom was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, an icon of Russian opera.
At the age of 16 he graduated from the Conservatory’s music composition department (a few years later, he received the diploma of pianist). His diploma was accompanied by not only a gold medal (summa cum laude), but also by several major works and the reputation of one of the main hopes of Russian art.
Soon he came to the attention of the largest Russian music publisher Boris Yurgenson, and after a few years Sergei Diaghilev, legendary ballet impresario, ordered him to write the score for the Ballets Russes in Paris.
This meteoric career might have been ruined by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. In that era, this fate befell many young talents who were destined for a great future. Nevertheless, Prokofiev had a talent for creating his musical universe as well as the ability to protect and defend it.
While his peers hesitated over a choice – what to do and where to live - Prokofiev decided that his goal was America. It was the only place where the composer could devote himself solely to creativity. New music, with its dissonances and unusual harmony, seemed overly complicated for many. Even his magnetic personality couldn’t always help Prokofiev promote his music.
So he resorted to pianistic virtuosity: Having received a contract for a piano concert, he would insert his own compositions into the program. In this period some of his most popular works were written: a few piano concertos, the operas The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel, Symphonies No. 2 and No. 3, and the ballet The Prodigal Son.