Today is Prokofiev’s birthday. I’m listening to Jill Pasternak’s Sergei programming on RTI and below an excerpt of my program notes for Playbill earlier this year for PABallet’s production of Cinderella.
Was Stalin the real evil Stepsister?
Sergei Prokofiev’s career was a triumph over musical conventions, personal tragedy and epic political upheaval in Russia. Born in the Ukraine, he first studied at Saint Petersburg Conservatory, under Alexander Glazunov, who eventually was displeased with Prokofiev’s musical innovations. He started composing music from age 5 and continued until his death at 61 in 1953.
Prokofiev is known primarily for relatively few marquee works- The Love for 3 Oranges, Peter and the Wolf and, most notably, his ballet score to Romeo and Juliet- but the prolific breadth, as well as authentic interpretations of his music, continues to be discovered. He composed works in all classical musical forms with equal academic and eventual artistic success. It is not an accident that, not counting himself, his contemporary Igor Stravinsky, considered him to be the greatest living Russian composer.
Surviving Stalin and Diagalev
Prokofiev’s early Russian musical training, and mastering of Russian Imperial classicism, groomed him for classical story ballets. Like George Balanchine, another Russian émigré seeking artistic freedom, Prokofiev eventually found artistic refuge at Serge Diagalev’s influential Ballets Russes, launching his reputation.
He retained his persona as ‘enfant terrible’ (dueling Russians in France!)continuing to bust through musical conventions and even regarded being panned by critics a compliment. Even with the political uncertainty and censorship under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the composer yearned to return to Russia and did so, at his eventual own peril.
After Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in 1935, he was subjected to the control of the official ‘Composers’ Union’ whose purpose was to ban outside artistic influence and to isolate Soviet composers.
During this period, he finished scores to the Sergei Eisenstat films ’Alexander Nevsky’ and ‘Ivan, the Terrible’ and mirroring the filmmaker’s indictment of dictatorships, the music reflects Eisenstat’s duality of nationalism and its veiled j’accuse toward Stalinist control.
Prokofiev started composition of Cinderella in 1941, postponing its completion for two years to compose his opera ‘War and Peace’ with considerable urgency in the wake of the German invasion of Russia that same year. The ballet finally had its premiere on November 15, 1945 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. After the war, many of the composer’s works were officially banned, tagged as anti-Soviet.
Prokofiev was another Russian artist who all but disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. Prokofiev died on the same day as Stalin and his obituary was barely a footnote in the official newspapers.