While on his final tour of the US in 1938, Prokofiev gave an interview to the New York Times. The reporter described his ‘cool and pleasantly untemperamental manner of address’, which ‘bespoke the industrial executive rather than the creator of music’. Indeed his appearance – balding and far from handsome, perfumed and decked out in suits – was scarcely that of a conventional composer, nor one who had chosen two years earlier to settle in Stalin’s Russia.
By then Prokofiev had already composed several works for Soviet audiences, some of which remain his most widely known: Lieutenant Kijé, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Peter and the Wolf. Yet there’s a lot more to Prokofiev than these wholesomely democratic works. It can be startling to encounter for the first time his ethereal First Violin Concerto (composed in his twenties in 1917), the ferocious incantation Seven, They are Seven (1917-18; rev. 1933) or some of the poignantly reflective pieces in his piano cycle Visions fugitives (1915-17). Even in Stalin’s Russia he was to compose such works as the Second String Quartet (1941), with its wonderfully inventive and effective evocations of folk music native to the Caucasus where it was composed.
Wild landscapes and rural retreats held an abiding attraction for Prokofiev. His early childhood was spent in Sontsovka, a rural estate in Ukraine far from any music-making other than by the local peasants or by his mother, an amateur pianist. Every evening he heard her practising Beethoven sonatas, then the simpler works of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. By the age of five he was composing his first pieces for piano; then in 1900, inspired by seeing Gounod’s Faust and Borodin’s Prince Igor on a family visit to Moscow, he composed his first opera, The Giant, aged eight.
A 13th birthday present of Grieg’s piano music stimulated Prokofiev’s interest in non-conventional harmonies. He studied with Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg Conservatoire but was influenced most by his fellow students, such as his friend Myaskovsky with whom he played through piano arrangements of Beethoven, Glazunov and Scriabin. Prokofiev rebelled against the academicism of the Conservatoire, preferring the more adventurous St Petersburg Evenings of Contemporary Music which presented premieres of such foreign modernists as Debussy and Strauss, as well as works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev himself.
Even as a student, Prokofiev was aware of Stravinsky’s rapid rise to fame through his association with Sergei Diaghilev. On graduating in 1914, Prokofiev travelled to London to meet Diaghilev for himself and encounter the Ballets Russes. His first ballet commission, Ala i Lolli, was never finished as Diaghilev, perhaps recognising it as poor successor to Stravinsky’s revolutionary Rite of Spring, told Prokofiev to start again on a new ballet (Prokofiev subsequently salvaged the Scythian Suite from Ala i Lolli). The result was Chout (The Buffoon: 1915, revised 1920), a work influenced by Stravinsky’s Petrushka but with an acerbic wit of its own.
For a time Prokofiev was friendly with Stravinsky and reacted enthusiastically to several works of Stravinsky’s including the ‘song games’ Pribaoutki. However, when Chout was finally staged in 1921, it proved all too successful for Stravinsky’s comfort. Prokofiev then presented The Love for Three Oranges – originally premiered by Chicago Opera in 1922 – to Diaghilev for a possible staging; Stravinsky, who was present, went on the attack, reinforcing Diaghilev’s prejudice that opera was a moribund form. The result was a full-scale row. Prokofiev, on the contrary, tried to be true to the spirit of his age with such aggressively ‘modernist’ works as the Second Symphony (1925) and in his ballet Le pas d’acier (1926) about the industrialisation of the Soviet Union. The latter was a success in Western Europe, but it was condemned by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) as ‘counter-revolutionary’ and banned. Prokofiev, badly shaken by this rejection, started to develop what he called a ‘new simplicity’, a style of music meant to be readily understood by a wide audience and which would yet reward repeated listenings. It seems symbolic that his last and possibly his greatest ballet for Diaghilev, written in this style, was called The Prodigal Son (1929).
Prokofiev’s ‘new simplicity’ appeared to match the ideals of ‘Socialist Realism’ prescribed by Stalin within the Soviet Union in 1932. This, and the flattering suggestion by Soviet officials that Prokofiev should play a key role in reviving music within the USSR, helped to persuade him to return to Russia. It has been suggested that Prokofiev’s ‘new simplicity’ actually reflected his increasing adherence to Christian Science, whose teachings he started to absorb from the mid-1920s. Christian Scientist art had ‘to be accessible, reflective of God’s egalitarian, universal love’.
Prokofiev’s adherence to certain tenets of Christian Science meant he turned against even such works of his own as the opera The Fiery Angel (1919-23, revised 1927) for its theme of necromancy, yet he never became puritanical, continuing to enjoy material pleasures like fine food and the latest gadgetry. That Christian Science and Socialist Realism nonetheless threatened to drive Prokofiev into a sterile cul de sac is evident in such stylistically anonymous works as Songs of Our Days (1937).
Against these, though, are the troubling, tragic masterpieces of his Soviet period such as the First Violin Sonata (started in 1938 but completed after World War II) and the Sixth Symphony (1947). These and other such works indicate that Prokofiev recognised the danger of losing his creative soul – not least because the era of Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s saw the arrest and death of several of Prokofiev’s close colleagues – and chose to remain true to himself and to the world as he saw it.