April 24, 2017. Prokofiev. Confusion surrounds the birth date of Sergei Prokofiev. One problem is calendar-related: when he was born, Russia was using the old Julian calendar. Prokofiev himself always thought that he was born on April 11th of 1891. When Russia moved to the Gregorian calendar after the October Revolution, April 11th became April 23rd while, quite confusingly, the anniversary of the revolution itself fell on November 7th. Prokofiev celebrated his birthday on the 23rd, but that’s not what is written in the existing copy of his birth certificate, which says that he was born on April 15th (old style), or April 27th. Last year we celebrated Prokofiev’s 125th anniversary and we wrote about him in some detail. Prokofiev’s life, like the lives of so many Russian artists of that time, can be divided in geographic periods: Russia, America, Europe, the USSR. He was born in the village of Sontsovka, not far from the present-day Donetsk, where his father managed an estate. His mother gave him his first piano lessons. At the age of 11, while in Moscow, he was introduced to Sergei Taneyev , who was quite impressed and asked his friend, composer Reinhold Glière, to give Prokofiev lessons in composition. A year later Prokofiev entered the St-Petersburg conservatory, where his studied with Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
A brilliant pianist and promising composer, he became famous early, even though the more conservative public was scandalized by works like The Scythian Suite. After the Revolution Prokofiev emigrated to the United States, thus starting the second and rather short period of his life. His time in the US was not very happy: as a pianist, he had to compete with the very successful Rachmaninov, and as a composer – with the more famous Stravinsky. He did compose a very successful opera The Love for Three Oranges, but as his career was not progressing, he moved to Europe, thus entering the third phase of his life. Prokofiev lived in Europe from 1922 to 1936, first in Germany and then in Paris. He married a Spanish singer, Lina Lubera, continued composing for Diagilev and mended his ways with Stravinsky, who considered Prokofiev the greatest Russian composer – after himself. Unlike Stravinsky, Prokofiev continued to maintain relationships with Soviet musicians and even wrote music for a Soviet film, Lieutenant Kijé (he reused the music in a very popular suite). He even received a commission from the Mariinsky theater, then recently renamed the Kirov, to create a ballet, Romeo and Juliet. As his links with the Soviet musical establishment grew, he was offered to return to Russia; he accepted in 1936. Why he made this fateful decision, considering the purges and recent condemnation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, we’ll never know.
The Soviets promised him a good life and artistic freedom, and initially that’s how it worked. Prokofiev adapted his work according to the political climate, writing songs on patriotic texts and a cantata in 10 movements for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, whose orchestration included a military band and several accordions. (Despite all this the Cantata had to wait its premier till 1966). Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and Prokofiev, like all important artists, was evacuated to the eastern parts of the country. Despite the hardship he continued to compose, which to some extent was easier as the musical censorship was relaxed. The three War piano sonatas and most of the opera War and Peace come from that period. And then, as the war ended, “Zhdanovshchina” erupted. While Stalin’s underlings Yezhov and Beria were terrorizing people physically, Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief ideolog, terrorized the Soviet cultural elite. He started with the writers and the poets in 1946, then moved on to condemnations of theater and film. Then, in 1948 the Politburo of the Communist Party issued a resolution criticizing “formalism” in classical music. We’ll consider the tragic consequences of this resolution another time. Here, from a much happier period, is Prokofiev’s answer to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – his Scythian Suite. Claudio Abbado conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.