Sergey Prokofiev Essay Example
Sergey Prokofiev Essay Example

Sergey Prokofiev Essay Example

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  • Published: June 2, 2017
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The music of Sergey Prokofiev is known all over the world. Even amongst the musically uneducated, his music is recognised today more than ever, heard frequently in radio broadcasts, television adverts and sitcoms. His less known works are also becoming increasingly popular, with many of his ballets and operas getting played around the world. However, it is interesting that it is only in the past 10 years or so that his music has became more prevalent.

Prokofiev often had to deal with harsh criticism and even bafflement when his musical works were first performed, specifically when he travelled to the west. Nevertheless, Prokofiev was an audacious pioneer and battled to get his music played. He became increasingly more popular as his career advanced, with his arrival in Europe, sparking partnerships with Les Ballet Russes. His return to Soviet Russia in


1936 is a move in Prokofiev’s life that is pivotal in the shift of his musical language. He struggled to write in the same style as he did abroad with the government criticising his ‘formalist’ approach.

Although Prokofiev occasionally bent the injunctions imposed on him by the Government, the widely appealing style he used in works such as his 5th Symphony brought him wider audiences and acclaim compared to his modernist trends. Sergei Prokofiev is one of Russia’s most celebrated composers, who crafted various different styles of music from extraordinary piano concertos to the stunning themes conveyed in his ballet – Romeo and Juliet. Born in 1891, Sergey Prokofiev grew up around music. His mother was an accomplished pianist playing Beethoven and Chopin – giving Prokofiev a taste for serious music from an early age.

With his mother’s

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keen eye for the arts, she began teaching her son piano from the age of four. As Prokofiev grew up, he visited Moscow with his family on several occasions and took a particular interest in ballet and opera after going to see a handful on his visits. On one visit to Moscow, he was introduced to Sergei Taneyev, who advised him to make use of his stay in the city and study music theory. Prokofiev took this advice, but his lessons with Yuri Pomerantsev were not hugely successful: “They seemed senseless to me.I wanted to compose operas full of marches, storms and blood-curdling scenes and instead they saddled me with tiresome nonsense.

” (S. Shlifstien & R. Prokofieva, 2000: 19) Prokofiev’s attitude towards these few lessons remained the same, so Taneyev arranged him to travel to Sontsovka in the summer of 1902 to study under Reinhold Gliere.The young Prokofiev had already tried his hands at composing a couple of operas, driven by the few he had seen in Moscow but under Gliere he had a go at his first symphony – where he later showed to Taneyev: “He praised the counterpoint… but remarked that the harmony was a little too crude” (S. Shlifstien & R. Prokofieva, 2000: 20) Prokofiev’s attitude on harmony was strongly opinionated in the very first few pieces of music he wrote.

It is interesting that he had this different view on harmony at this age, as it only radicalized when he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory Now thirteen years old, Prokofiev was the youngest pupil ever to be admitted into the best Conservatoire in Russia. In his memoirs he talks about the

success of his entrance exam, referring to it as ‘quite sensational’. However, Prokofiev found the beginning of his formal musical education quite dull.He was described as being difficult to handle in the conservatoire, principally because of his precocious ego.

On the other hand, he had written many unpublished works and was advanced in his musical writings. His most accomplished of writings were for the piano and he really started to create his own style of lyricism. This is demonstrated in his work: Four Etudes Op. 2. The romantic disposition conveyed in these early piano works give characteristics of heavy, repeated bass lines and enlarged harmony.This harmony is not to be misconceived as highly dissonant or atonal, as it has a central sense of tone – it just stretches it to certain limits.

Prokofiev was also writing orchestral works, but theses were primarily written to get away from the piano. Works such as Dreams Op. 6 and Autumnal Sketch Op. 8 were a great contrast to his piano writing.

They were sumptuously orchestrated and almost definitely took inspiration from Rachmaninoff’s writings of the same time and style. The piano music that the student Prokofiev was writing was highly chromatic and more than anything, very hard to play.This radical style is portrayed in his 2nd Piano Concerto, Op. 16. This was premiered towards the very end of his time at the conservatoire, and after his first piano concerto receiving so many mixed reviews, his second was waited for in anticipation: "The charges of showy brilliance and certain 'acrobatic' tendencies in the first Concerto induced me to strive for greater depth in the Second.

" (Prokofiev, 1979: 243)

This work is a grand romantic statement, written in memory of his childhood friend who had taken their life.There is a solid structure to this four-movement piece, where the composer as a young man truly expresses his feeling with such dramatic music. The cadenza of the first movement captures what his piano writing had become at the end of his studies: (Score Example 1) Long melodic runs, heavy accented bass notes and bold chord spacing demonstrates Prokofiev’s extreme musical language. Reaction to this performance was highly condemned with public responses saying, ‘to hell with this futuristic music! ’.It seems that this second concerto caused even more of an uproar than the first, however critics were beginning to see similarities in his writings and understood this new type of modernism.

More importantly, when the 22-year-old Prokofiev graduated, he knew where he was going with his writings and had established his own style. This emulates exactly what Prokofiev was about as a young composer, ‘to hell with tradition’ – he would do what he wanted. In the years following his graduation, Prokofiev began to visit different cities in Europe and met Sergei Diaghilev.Prokofiev engaged Diaghilev initially with his 2nd Piano Concerto, and began to discuss with him about the possibility of staging one of the composers’ operas. Diaghilev had a cynical view on opera and instead encouraged Prokofiev to adapt this concerto into a ballet with Russian motifs. He struggled with this, and instead reworked the music from his failed ballet Ala and Lolli into an orchestral suite with four movements, named Scythian Suite Op.

20. Prokofiev was envious of fellow Russian Stravinsky, and wanted to receive

the same riotous reaction with his orchestral suite with the more eminent composer of the Rite of Spring.The concert is going to take place. Do you know that the price of rotten eggs and apples has gone up in St.

Petersburg? That's what they'll throw at me! ” (Prokofiev, 1979: 306) However, orchestral writing for Prokofiev became difficult, unless it was in the neo-classical context in which he was still adamant in writing. The musical maturity in which Prokofiev had gained in his piano writing labelled him as a modernist, but he had not quite perfected this style in his orchestral works. Yet, Scythian Suite Op. 0 was most definitely the starting point in bridging the gap between his orchestral and piano writing.The techniques employed in this work, were the beginning of a trend of methods highlighted in his later music written for orchestra.

The Great War and the Russian Revolution led Prokofiev to leave Russia and he arrived in America in 1918. The composer was quite poor at this time prompting him to play recitals to make money, which was not the way he had envisaged his music to be heard in the West. Critics labelled him as a ‘Bolshevik Pianist’, leading Prokofiev to grow bitter about America.Nevertheless, on a trip to Chicago in the winter of 1918 he performed his Scythian Suite and 1st Piano Concerto, which was overwhelmingly successful.

This led to his first commission in America as he partnered with the Chicago Opera Association for his opera – Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33. This did not premier until 1921, but it was an immediate success and was later performed in

opera houses throughout Europe. Prokofiev saw its Russian premier in 1926, in the newly named Leningrad – previously St. Petersburg.

He sat with Soviet Government personnel, Lunacharsky who commented on this Opera saying: “…the Scythian Suite was barbaric and the Three Oranges was like a glass of Champagne. ” (S. Shlifstien & R. Prokofieva, 2000: 71) Even though Lunacharsky makes a sharp contrast between the two pieces, it is not to say that Prokofiev’s musical language had changed. Scythian Suite is probably the most extreme of his modernist way of writing, but this opera still showed many characteristics of this style. Prokofiev was a huge lover of operas, stemming from his love of them as a child.

The Gambler was another Opera of his, written in Russia before he left and later revised it in 1927. After the extreme success of his Love for Three Oranges, Prokofiev believed The Gambler would be his operatic manifesto. He wanted to change the way people thought about Opera, with his contemporaries having tedious views on it – saying it was out-dated. It premiered in Brussels in 1929, however it has only been reproduced a handful of times, most recently in 2010 by Covent Garden.A review of this most recent production from the Telegraph Newspaper said: Prokofiev’s score seems to be pitched on the edge of hysteria, full of pounding ostinatos and screaming brass, rising to an orchestral tour de force for a climactic round of roulette… The overall effect is momentarily gripping but ultimately enervating, and for all its febrile brilliance, it leaves little after-taste. ”(Christiansen, The Telegraph 2010) This demonstrates that the operatic style that Prokofiev was writing in

was so full of madness and exhilaration, that it even shocks critics and musicians today in the present.

When this opera was premiered in 1929 it must have left an almighty impression on the people who went to see his works performed. By 1930, Prokofiev had made a name for himself in the Western World having accomplished his innovative and distinctive style of writing in piano, orchestral and operatic settings. Prokofiev permanently returned to Russia in 1936, longing his home place. Many ask if it really was homesickness that brought him back to Russia – it probably had role to play in his return, but there were other factors.Despite the success of his ballets and other outcomes in Europe, fellow Russian giant – Stravinsky, still overshadowed him. Furthermore in America, Rachmaninoff was proving a huge hit and things were happening so fast in the United States that they slowly began to forget about Prokofiev.

He received a lot of privileges from the Government – receiving his passport and was even given a house in Moscow, but he had to make a huge sacrifice for this. Prokofiev had to change the style of his music to suit the communist state.The majority of the works Prokofiev wrote between 1936 through until his death, showed very little of the modernist style he had written in the past and if it did, it was nothing of the same magnitude. Probably the utmost example of this is to look at his 5th Symphony Op.

100. Written during the Second World War, the music in this Symphony brought warmth to Prokofiev’s musical language and portrayed a vastly different type of emotion. Prokofiev

himself spoke of this music with much admiration: "A hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit… It was born in me and lamored for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul.

" (Schwarz, 1972: 196)The premier of this work was very well received by the communist state and is most definitely Prokofiev’s most praised symphony. Within the music there were correlations, reminiscent of his early orchestral works such as Autumnal Sketch Op. 8. At this time Prokofiev may not have been writing in the modernist style that he wanted to, but the music he wrote in this period of his life was highly rewarding.

He wrote a lot of music for children which both provided a highly entertaining and educative experience for children in Russia at the time. Peter and the Wolf Op. 67 is probably the best product of his musical writings for children and is used as a resource for music educators all over the world today. Prokofiev’s return to Russia had a huge impact on his musical style and language, but if he had not returned many ask if these highly regarded works would ever had been written or would Prokofiev had kept to his radical, innovative style? Sergey Prokofiev is one of Russia’s most celebrated composers.The music he wrote in his lifetime was always quite unpredictable because of is rapidly changing style.

He travelled across all of Europe and America always finding new ways to adapt his musical language. On more than a few occasions, this shocked the states and countries that had never heard this radically different approach. On the

other hand, the risks Prokofiev was taking with his modernist approach to music gave him a status and a contender not to be messed with. If he had not taken these risks, would Prokofiev be the celebrated composer he is today?

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