What was the first piece of classical music you heard as a child? Was it something by Mozart? Tchaikovsky? Beethoven? For many of us, it was Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Peter is still very much with us, as is much other music by Prokofiev.
From early childhood, Prokofiev began demonstrating the course his career was to take. At the age of five he was composing little pieces at the piano. For his application to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, at thirteen, he submitted four operas, two sonatas, a symphony, and several piano works. For his graduation exercise he was the soloist in his own First Piano Concerto before a panel of twenty judges, each of whom had the published score in his hands.
In April of 1918, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev headed for the New World. He spent the next eighteen years in exile, bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic. While in America he very nearly became a Hollywood composer. He was ardently wooed by the big studios, Walt Disney wanted him for Fantasia, and he was entertained by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson. In Paris he teamed up with the famed impresario of the Ballets russes, Sergei Diaghilev, for several ballet commissions, including Chout (written back in Russia), Le Pas d'acier, and The Prodigal Son. Prokofiev came twice to Canada, in 1919 and again in 1930. On the latter occasion he appeared in Montreal, where he gave a recital at McGill University’s Moyse Hall. In 1927 he made the first of several return visits to his homeland, and in 1936, the year he composed Peter and the Wolf, he returned for good.
Few composers, especially twentieth-century ones, are remembered for such a large number of popular works: the Classical Symphony, the Fifth Symphony, the ballet scores for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, the Second and Third Piano Concertos, both violin concertos, the Seventh Piano Sonata, the Lieutenant Kijé Suite, the cantata Alexander Nevsky, and the mammoth opera War and Peace (the Metropolitan Opera’s production in 2002 required 1,200 costumes), to start the list rolling. And don’t forget Peter!
What is it about Prokofiev’s music that gives it such enduring distinction? An underlying simplicity of musical line, a strong orientation for tonality (despite the grinding dissonances found in earlier works), a high degree of craftsmanship, and driving, motoric rhythms are some of the factors, along with Prokofiev’s uncanny ability to combine grotesquerie and lyric charm, satire and fantasy. His music sounds like no other; it is almost always instantly recognizable as coming from a single composer. To Russian-born Yuli Turovsky, founding conductor of the string ensemble I Musici de Montréal, “Prokofiev’s music is as beautiful as Tchaikovsky’s, but with a new twist. It is still very human and emotional, and there is almost never any banality in his music; it is all is fresh and original.”
by Robert Markow