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Sergei Prokofiev

(1891–1953)

Prokofiev composed his first opera when he was nine; at the age of thirteen he began attending the St Petersburg Conservatoire. His teachers included Nikolai Tcherepnin, Anatoly Lyadov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Before the outbreak of World War I, Prokofiev visited London, where he heard Stravinsky’s ballets and accepted Sergei Diaghilev’s offer of artistic collaboration. The theme and music of the ballet Ala and Lolli (1914) were, however, too reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, hence Diaghilev turned the work down. Later on, at the premiere of its concert version, titled The Scythian Suite, the composer Alexander Glazunov left the hall. “The Scythian Suite was simply too noisy for Glazunov. His sensitive ear just couldn’t také it. The orchestra tried too hard. After the concert, the timpanist gave Prokofiev the leather from the kettle-drum. It was ruptured.” (com. 1)
In 1915 Prokofiev began writing a new work for Diaghilev, the comic fairy-tale ballet Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon Who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons, premiered in 1921, choreography: T. Slavinsky). Other ballets ensued: Le pas d’acier (The Steel Step, premiered in 1927, choreography: L. Massine), inspired by Meyerhold’s and Tairov’s poems; the expressionist ballet Le Fils prodigue (The Prodigal Son, premiered in 1929, choreography: G. Balanchine); and Sur le Borysthène (On the Dnieper, premiered in 1932 at the Paris Opera, choreography: S. Lifar), dedicated to Diaghilev’s memory. After living for several years in the USA and Paris, in 1935 Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union for good. “He had had the best of both worlds for fifteen years. The West considered him a Soviet citizen, whereas in Russia he was received as a foreign guest. But the situation then changed. The culture officials began Viking him with suspicion. What a Parisian our Prokofiev actually is? And Prokofiev said to himself that after all it would be more advantageous for him to return to the Soviet Union. His value would thus only rise in the West, since everything Soviet had become fashionable there. And in the Soviet Union they would stop considering him a foreigner.” (com. 2)
Initially, Prokofiev was greeted with enthusiasm, yet later on his works, written in genuine compliance with Stalin’s ideas, ceased to be successful. The ballets composed in this period, Romeo and Juliet (1938, I. V. Psota, Brno) and Cinderella (1945, R. Zakharov), alongside The Tale of the Stone Flower (1954, L. Lavrovsky), are among the world’s most frequently performed titles. In 1948, together with Shostakovich, Khachaturian and other composers, Prokofiev was accused of formalistic perversity and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet nation and its “artistic taste”.
At the time, harmonic and sonic aggressiveness referred to modern artistic trends in European culture of the first half of the 20th century. Ten years later, the composers were partially rehabilitated. In conclusion, it is worth adding that besides ballets Prokofiev has a place in the history of music as a composer of operas, The Gambler, The Fiery Angel, Semyon Kotko, War and Peace, The Story of a Real Man, etc.; music for Eisenstein’s films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible; seven symphonies, the symphonic poem Peter and the Wolf; a number of piano and violin sonatas, concertos and string quartets.


1) Volkov. S.: Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. Translated into Czech by H. Linhartová, V. Sommer, Prague, AMU 2005, p. 75.
2) Ibid, p. 84.

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