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Prokofiev, Serge (1891-1953)
Portrait (1926) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1884–1967)

Serge Prokofiev

born: 23 April 1891
died: 5 March 1953
country: Russia

‘You never knew what to expect of Prokofiev. He was friendly, but not an easy guy to talk to. I don’t remember ever talking with him about anything serious. He tended to play a light, bouncy game; he was boyish, easily bored, and even impolite at times. He enjoyed teasing people and loved to make witty remarks and tell stories. He was very bright and outspoken, and I can’t imagine that he would ever hide how he felt about anything.’ That’s how, in 1982, the American composer Aaron Copland recalled his meetings with Prokofiev half a century earlier. Although Prokofiev was well aware of the various artistic movements of the day, they rarely had more than a superficial effect on his music. Never seriously associated with any group or ‘-ism’, his self-assurance insulated him from much that might have been distracting. It also gave him a self-centred view of life and art that was both a strength and – in later years – the source of enormous personal problems. He never taught, and never theorised about what he was doing: but he reacted quickly and with imagination to the world around him – and what a world it was, beginning with the cloudy and exciting experiments of pre-revolutionary Russia, followed by the years of exile in Europe and America in the 1920s and 30s, and finally the grim years of Stalin’s Russia and the Nazi invasion.

Free of political ideology or any philosophical, religious or cultural preconceptions, he was generally prepared to adapt to the circumstances in which he found himself. He was, after all, capable of writing wonderful music to order, whether for the capricious Diaghilev, for chic Parisians in search of novelty, for children, for the Soviet masses or even to glorify Josef Stalin. He was the very opposite of the confessional artist who needs to bare his soul. If he had an artistic credo, it was simply to work hard and make it new. ‘I loath imitation. I hate ordinary methods. Originality is my goal and I want to be myself always.’

Some reminiscences of people who worked with him give a picture of an intimidating, rather cold figure. At rehearsals he was severe, brisk, unsparing of personal feelings. This was the outward persona of the hardworking professional who always had to be occupied, who could never bear to waste valuable time, who insisted on strict organisation and relentless punctuality.

But we also know how funny and kind he could be with his friends and family. Prokofiev remembered his childhood in the Ukrainian countryside as idyllically happy, and never lost a fresh, uncomplicated vision of the world. When fairy tales, animals and children are featured in his music they are never sentimentalised, but treated with irony, enjoyment and a delightful sense of the ridiculous. He liked to wear bright clothes (particularly ties and socks). Rather endearingly, his acute rhythmic sense did not extend to his own body when he was away from a keyboard: he was a clumsy dancer and an enthusiastic but erratic driver. A passionate chess player, he was delighted when in 1914 he managed to beat (just once) the reigning world champion Raul Capablanca. He loved word games and was at home in several languages. An accomplished traveller, he enjoyed good food, but was not interested in historical monuments and soon got bored with sightseeing. His friend the émigré composer Nicolas Nabokov recalled that all he could find to say when visiting Chartres Cathedral was, ‘I wonder how they got those statues up so high without dropping them’. He found it hard to take anything too seriously, often to his own disadvantage.

As a boy he was simply bursting with energy and talent, very sure of himself, and something of a spoiled brat. His student career followed the usual stages: precocious talent – golden boy – impatient radical – confounded nuisance. He came to wide public attention with two piano concertos, the first of which appeared in 1912, the same year as Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Futurist manifesto ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Taste’. Hostile critics, offended by Prokofiev’s high level of dissonance and his percussive treatment of the piano, thought that he, too, was slapping the public’s face. True, his music was often brash and provocative, and he certainly enjoyed being naughty, but there was much more to it than that: a tremendous vitality, a strong lyrical impulse and a rare prodigality of ideas.

Whatever compromises he had to make through the changing circumstances of his life, Prokofiev remained true to a musical character which was essentially formed by the time he was 20, a character that has proved both unique and widely appealing. In all his music we find striking images of contrast and confrontation, strange juxtapositions of mood, and powerful rhetoric followed by sudden moments of shy or tender reflection. Despite his generally cheerful nature there is plenty of darkness, even sometimes tragedy, but it is expressed with clear objectivity and never confused with self-indulgence or sentimentality.

from notes by Andrew Huth © 2009

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