Prokofiev the Spoiled Brat (*hem*) Child Prodigy
Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (Сергей Сергеевич Прокофьев) was born on Wednesday 23-April in the year 1891 in the village of Sontsovka which was, at that time, part of the Russian Empire (now it is a village in the Ukraine). His father, Sergei Alekseevich Prokofiev, was an agricultural engineer and his mother, Maria Grigoryevna Zhitkova, was a well educated pianist. A typical only child, born to parents who desperately longed for children, Prokofiev was privileged and doted on throughout his childhood. He enjoyed a comfortable life of luxuries as he grew up in his cozy manor on a spacious farming estate. Although he was never forced into his musical studies, young Sergei fast adopted a passion for music and piano as the result of his mother’s constant practicing. As soon as he could reach the keys he began to learn piano and by age five he had composed his first piece, “Indian Gallop”. Remarkably, this early composition and the many that soon followed demonstrated a mature understanding of already established musical forms as well as new harmonies and rhythms that would be used in his works later in life. Prokofiev also developed a passion for the game of chess, mastering its complicated rules and tricks by the ripe age of seven.
Recognizing their son’s prodigious musical talent, the parents arranged a trip in 1901 to the great cultural center of Moscow An audition was arranged for ten year old Sergei to perform in front of the famous Moscow professor and composer Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev. Taneyev was so impressed that he fast recruited another music teacher from Moscow to travel to Sontskova in the summer of 1902 to hone Sergei’s skills. The teacher was Reinhold Moritsevich Glierewas a young but accomplished composer and capable pianist. By the summer of 1903, twelve year old Sergei had composed two opera, a four-movement symphony with Gliere’s help, and about 70 small piano pieces.
In 1904 Sergei and his mother relocated to St. Petersburg in order to give him a proper music education. Acting on the recommendations of the famous composer, Alexander Glazunov, Prokofiev took the entrance exam to the Conservatory and was admitted as the youngest student in the history of the music school. This sparked jealousy in the hearts of his classmates, many of whom were twice his age. By the same token, his early success encouraged an arrogance that infamously characterized the composer for the remainder of his life. He was self-confident, generally critical of his fellow students, and yet loathing of criticism he often received from his teachers for his unconventional music devices. He never allowed the criticism to stop him from drawing his own ideas, even at the expense of poor grades and later scathing reviews. Prokofiev entered his tenth and last term in the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 at age 22 with a domineering goal in mind, to win the coveted Anton Rubinstein Prize awarded to the best student pianist. Bravely using his own Piano Concerto No. 1 (previously poorly received by critics as far as the states), Prokofiev won that competition, proudly touting his ultimately grand successes at the conservatory.
As he dashed around France during the succeeding years chasing the fame of his contemporary impressionist, Igor Stravinsky, major changes were happening in the government of Prokofiev’s homeland. Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in March 1917 ending Imperial Russian rule forever and St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, becoming a center location for the Bolshevik Revolution. Composers during this era suffered sever artistic restrictions and many choose to emigrate while they still could. In 1918, Prokofiev chose to move east towards Vladivostok, Japan, and eventually the United States. His time in the States were unkind to him, due to his Bolshevik labels, and his stay resulted in a bitter attitude toward American culture. On the bright side, it was in New York City where Prokofiev met the soprano, his future wife Carolina Codina, in the fall of 1918 (a complicated and ultimately terrible story that I can’t touch in a short blog entry… look it up).
Prokofiev never forgot his beloved homeland behind the tight borders of the Soviet Union and towards the end of 1926 he began negotiations in with Soviet authorities for a return tour. Although weary of his similarities to the now troublesome Stravinsky they granted him permission in 1927, thus, beginning Stravinsky’s permanent move homeward. Although he returned briefly during the rough year of 1929 (mostly due to Stalin and his random denunciations of all the great Russian composers of the time) Prokofiev enjoyed a much more successful tour in 1932 that convinced him to return to Russia for the duration of his lifetime (for better or more accurately for worse). With the outbreak of WW2 and the dangerous whims of the paranoid Stalin, the following decades brought danger (in the form of threatened execution for the crime of rejected works) and eventually complete isolation from the outside world. They also brought him is greatest success of all. In 1944 he wrote what is now considered the crowned jewel of his compositions, The Fifth Symphony, for which he was awarded the Stalin award in 1945.
Sergei Prokofiev died of a massive Brain hemorrhage, ironically on the same day as Stalin on March 5th 1953. After the long an epic journey of his life, his death was not published in the papers and was tragically unknown for a substantial time by most people outside his circle of exclusive friends. Prokofiev was eventually buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow alongside many of his contemporaries.