Sergei Prokofiev

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Russian composer, born april 23rd 1891, died march 5th 1953.

Sergei was born in Sontsovka, Ukraine as an only child. His mother was a pianist and his father a relatively wealthy agricultural engineer. Sergei displayed unusual musical abilities at an early age and in 1902, when he started taking private lessons composition, he had already produced a number of pieces. As soon as he had the necessary theoretical tools he quickly started experimenting, laying the base for his own musical style.

After a while the isolation in Sonsovka started to feel restricting to Sergei's further musical development. Although his parents weren't too keen on forcing their son into a musical carreer at such an early point, in 1904 he moved to Saint Petersburg and applied to the academy of music. He passed the introductory tests and could start his composition studies the same year, being several years younger than most of his classmates. He was also viewed as eccentric and arrogant, and he often expressed dissatisfaction with much of the education which he found boring. During this period he studied under, among others, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He also became friends with Boris Asafiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky.

In the Saint Petersburg music scene, Sergei would gradually get a reputation as an enfant terrible, frequently getting praise for his original compositions which he would perform himself on the piano. 1909 he graduated from his class in composition, getting less than impressive marks. He continued at the academy, but instead concentrating on playing the piano and conducting. His piano lessons went far from smoothly, but the composing class made impact. His teacher encouraged his musical experimenting and his works from this period display more intensity than earlier.

1910 Sergei's father died and Sergei's economical support ceased. Luckily, at that time he had started making a name for himself as a composer, although he frequently caused scandals with his futuristic works. His first two piano concertos were composed at this time. 1914 Sergei left the academy, this time with the highest marks, winning him a grand piano. Soon after, he made a trip to London where he made contact with Sergei Diaghilew and Igor Stravinsky.

During the first world war, Sergei returned again to the academy, now studying organ. He composed an opera based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Gambler, but the rehearsals were plagued by problems and the premiere 1917 had to be cancelled because of the february revolution. In summer the same year, Prokofiev composed his first sympohony, the Classical. This was Sergei's own name for the symphony, which was composed in a style inspired by e.g. Joseph Haydn. After a brief stay with his mother in Kislovodsk, Kaukasus, because of worries of the enemy capturing Petrograd, he returned in 1918, but he was now determined to leave Russia, at least temporarily. In the current russian state of unrest he saw no room for his experimental music and in may he headed for the USA.

Arriving in San Francisco he was immidiately compared to other famous "exile" russians (e.g. Sergei Rachmaninov) and he started out successfully with a solo concert in New York, leading to several further engagements. He also got a contract for the production of his new opera The Love for Three Oranges, but due to illness and the death of the conductor the premiere was cancelled. Prokofiev just had bad luck when it came to opera. The failure also cost him his american solo carreer, since the opera took too much time and effort. He soon found himself in financial difficulties and in april 1920 he left for Paris, not wanting to return to Russia as a loser.

Paris was better prepared for Sergei's musical style. He reaffirmed his contacts with Diaghilew and Stravinsky.

(to be continued...)