Sergei Prokofiev

1891–1953

20th Century

Prokofiev was a Russian composer and a brilliant pianist. He was one of the major composers of the 20th century.

Prokofiev liked experimenting. The style of his music kept changing. In the early years it often sounded quite wild and uncontrolled. He used lots of energetic rhythms, percussive sounds (crashing and banging) and dissonance (notes played together that clash and sound strange). However, much of his music also sounded playful, childlike and delicate. He also liked to be funny and witty in his writing: he even mimicked music from the Classical era, 100 years earlier.

Prokofiev knew how to use music to tell a story. He loved writing ballets, operas and film music. One of his most famous works is Peter and the Wolf – a musical fairytale. A narrator tells a story and the instruments of the orchestra play the different characters. You can picture the whole tale just by listening.

World War One and the Russian Revolution made living and working Russia very difficult, so Prokofiev left his home in 1918. At first he lived in America before moving to Germany and then settling in Paris. But Prokofiev missed his homeland, which was now called the Soviet Union. When he returned home in 1935 it was under the control of Stalin. Like many other Russian composers of the day, Prokofiev was censored by the Soviet leaders: this meant that the government made strict rules about what kind of music was okay to compose. Because of this, Prokofiev’s style altered: rhythms were less busy, and notes didn’t clash so much. It was easier to listen to – more romantic and cheerful. Some of his most famous music was written during this period, including Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet. Even so, he still got into trouble with the Soviet government in 1948 for writing music that was ‘too complicated’ and his music was banned for a while.

Prokofiev was a clever composer with a strong musical personality – he seemed to add a splash of colour to classical music!

Sergei Prokofiev, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Get a taste of Prokofiev – choose a track…

Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, ‘Classical’: I. Allegro

Prokofiev called his Symphony No. 1 ‘Classical’: on purpose, he wrote it in a style similar to Haydn’s, over 100 years earlier. This first movement sounds graceful, playful and witty.

Performers: Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.554058

Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67: I. Introduction

Prokofiev wrote Peter and the Wolf in 1936 to introduce children to instruments of the orchestra. The narrator tells the story, and the instruments represent the different characters. This is the very beginning.

Performers: Dame Edna Everage, narrator; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; John Lanchbery

Taken from Naxos 8.554170

Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60: IV. Troika

The well-known music for the film Lieutenant Kijé was written in 1933. It was Prokofiev’s first film score. He then made a set of pieces from that score – an ‘orchestral suite’ – and ‘Troika’ is one of the most famous movements. It is often played at Christmas time.

Performers: Lille National Orchestra; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.557725

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What is Prokofiev’s most famous masterpiece for children called?

a. Noah and the Bear
b. Henry and the Hippo
c. Peter and the Wolf

 What was Prokofiev’s first love?

a. Football
b. Opera
c. Chamber Music

 Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, the ‘Classical’ Symphony, took its influence from which musical era?

a. Baroque era
b. Romantic era
c. Classical era

 What was Prokofiev brilliant at doing through his music?

a. Telling you a story
b. Sending you to sleep
c. Making friends

 Which of Shakespeare’s plays did Prokofiev turn into a ballet?

a. A Midsummer Night's Dream
b. Hamlet
c. Romeo and Juliet


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Prokofiev composed his first piano piece aged five. It was called Indian Gallop and was written down by his mother.
  2. Prokofiev loved playing chess.
  3. Prokofiev wrote very difficult piano pieces. His Second Piano Concerto was first performed in 1913 and the audience at that time found it a bit much. ‘The cats on the roof make better music!’ they said.
  4. Although Prokofiev’s biggest interest was opera, he wrote only one really successful one: The Love for Three Oranges.
  5. Prokofiev and the composer Stravinsky were friends, although they had strong opinions about each other’s music. Stravinsky once described Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his day – after himself!

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Ballets


Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 1, Op. 64bis

Prokofiev wrote music for this ballet, based on Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet. He then made three ‘suites’ – groups of pieces from the full work to be played by an orchestra in a concert hall, without any dancing. The music in the suites doesn’t follow the story – it’s in a different order from the pieces in the complete ballet. There is both love and fighting to depict in music, and Prokofiev does it really well: listen to the contrast between the tender music in track 6, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, full of love, and the frantic, dramatic music of track 7 ‘The Death of Tybalt’, when Romeo kills Tybalt. Tybalt has killed Romeo’s best friend and Romeo is angry. Track 6 has long notes, long phrases, and lush melodies from string instruments; track 7 has short, spiky notes, more energy, and percussion: listen to the snare drum come in at 0.42 and then again at 0.52.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.571210


Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2, Op. 64ter

Prokofiev composed Romeo and Juliet for the Kirov ballet in 1934. At the time, Russia liked traditional ballets where the story was important. Musically the most famous part of the work is ‘Montagues and Capulets’ (track 1), which is very dramatic: the two groups are fighting each other! Listen to the scary clashing chords at the start, then the big, striding tune at 1.17.

Performers: National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine; Andrew Mogrelia

Taken from Naxos 8.554057


Cinderella Suite No. 1, Op. 107

Just as he did for his ballet Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev rearranged his ballet Cinderella into an orchestral suite. The music paints a wonderful picture of the fairytale. In the last movement we hear the clock striking midnight and the panic in Cinderella as she runs hurriedly away, realizing that the spell has been broken.

Performers: Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.550968-69


Cinderella Suite No. 2, Op. 108

As with Prokofiev’s other ballet suites, the music here isn’t just exact excerpts from the original ballet. Prokofiev made quite a few changes, including for example the way in which the music was orchestrated (which instruments he used for which parts) and changes in tempi (speeds).

Performers: Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.550968-69

Other Pieces with Stories


The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Op. 33bis (excerpts)

The Love for Three Oranges suite is taken from Prokofiev’s comic opera by the same name. The March is probably the best-known piece from the opera.

Performers: Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Košice; Andrew Mogrelia

Taken from Naxos 8.550381


Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60

Prokofiev wrote this well-known music in 1933 for a film, the first of many highly successful film scores of the next 10 years. He arranged it as a suite of pieces for orchestra in 1934.

Performers: Lille National Orchestra; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.557725


Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67

Peter and the Wolf is one of the few masterpieces written for children. The narrator tells a story and instruments of the orchestra represent the different characters. This is explained in track 1. Listen out for the flute (the bird), the oboe (the duck), the clarinet (the cat), the bassoon (Grandfather), French horns (the wolf), string instruments (Peter), and the timpani and bass drum (the hunters’ guns). This shows off Prokofiev’s gift of storytelling through music.

Performers: Dame Edna Everage, narrator; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; John Lanchbery

Taken from Naxos 8.554170


Alai Lolli Suite, Op. 20, ‘Scythian Suite’

The Scythian Suite began as music for a ballet commissioned by the famous Diaghilev – an ‘impresario’ (somebody who organizes and often pays for concerts, plays, operas and ballets). But Diaghilev rejected Prokofiev’s music, saying it was impossible to dance to! So Prokofiev rewrote it as an orchestral suite. The piece needs a very large orchestra, with lots of percussion instruments.

Performers: Ukranian State Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.550968-69

Symphonies


Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, ‘Classical’

Prokofiev wanted to write a symphony in the Classical style, like those of Haydn, and affectionately called it the ‘Classical’ symphony. You can hear a light sound and a happiness about the whole thing – Prokofiev was having fun.

Performers: Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.554058


Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100

Symphony No. 5 was composed in the darkest days of World War II. You can hear the influence of war and the military in the music. The last movement ends jubilantly, reflecting Russian victories in the war. Unlike the lightness of the First Symphony, it is thicker and more Romantic in sound.

Performers: Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.554058


Symphony No. 6 in E flat major, Op. 111

Prokofiev wrote this symphony to reflect on the tragedy of World War II. He said: ‘Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten.’ The sounds of war can be heard in the music. Right from the start you can hear there is trouble, and listen from 9.50 to 11.06 in track 1: percussion, insistent brass fanfares, and clashing notes.

Performers: Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.553069


Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131

Symphony No. 7 was Prokofiev’s last symphony. He completed it in 1952, the year before he died. It was written for the Soviet Children’s Radio division.

Performers: Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.553054

Concertos


Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19

Although Prokofiev composed his First Violin Concerto in 1917 it wasn’t first performed until 1923 – in Paris. Its structure is quite unusual: usually concertos have a slow movement in the middle of two faster ones. Prokofiev, who liked to play around with music, does the opposite: two slower movements sandwich a quick dazzling one.

Performers: Tedi Papavrami, violin; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.553494


Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major, Op. 10

In 1914 Prokofiev performed his own First Piano Concerto in a competition: he thought he wasn’t good enough on the piano to win by playing a well-known concerto – but if he played his own, how would the judges know whether he was playing the right notes? In fact, the piece is challenging: Prokofiev showed off his talent and won the prize. It is the shortest of his five piano concertos, lasting around 15 minutes.

Performers: Kun Woo Paik, piano; Polish National Radio Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550566


Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26

Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is his most famous and, of the five he wrote, it is performed most often. It is full of life, humour and invention: Prokofiev was a great musical inventor! The start of track 1 is curious: just a solo clarinet with a wandering line… where is it going? Another clarinet joins… then the strings melt in. But when at 0.44 the orchestra starts to introduce the piano, everything comes to life. The piano bursts in at 0.50 with great energy and vigour!

Performers: Kun Woo Paik, piano; Polish National Radio Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550566


Piano Concerto No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 53

Prokofiev wrote his Fourth Piano Concerto for Paul Wittgenstein, the brilliant Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm in the Second World War: the piano part is written for the left hand alone. Listen to the music and imagine how all the piano notes are being played by just one hand! It’s very impressive.

Performers: Kun Woo Paik, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550566