Sergei Prokofiev

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Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Opus 26

Symphony No. 1 in D Major Opus 25, “Classical”


Prokofiev's music is modern and very exciting, containing lush orchestrations and great rhythmic vitality. Three of his most popular compositions are included on this Musically Speaking CD.

The first, Symphony No. 1, "Classical," is modeled on the Symphonies of Haydn and Mozart.

The second work, the well known Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra, is brilliantly performed by the artist, accompanied by the Seattle Symphony in a rousing display of virtuoso piano pyrotechnics.

The third work, written as music for ballet, is based upon the Shakespeare drama "Romeo and Juliet." It is extremely dramatic and compelling in its intensity.



1.     Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 Classical I Allegro con brio 

2.     Symphony No. 1 Classical II Larghetto    

3.     Symphony No. 1 Classical III Gavotte, Non troppo Allegro 

4.     Symphony No. 1 Classical IV Finale, Molto vivace  

5.     Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 26 I Andante: Allegro 

6.     Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 26 II Andantino  

7.     Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 26 III Allegro ma non troppo

8.     Romeo and Juliet The Montagues and Capulets   

9.     Romeo and Juliet The Child Juliet    

10.   Romeo and Juliet Masks      

11.   Romeo and Juliet Death of Tybalt    

12.   Romeo and Juliet Romeo at Juliet's Before Parting  

13.   Romeo at the Grave of Juliet    

14.   Prokofiev's Early Years       

15.   Listener’s Guide to Neoclassicism and Classical Symphony    

16.   Listener’s Guide to Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 Classical  

17.   Listener’s Guide to Prokofiev: The Wandering Composer   

18.   Listener’s Guide to Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3  

19.   Listener’s Guide to Prokofiev: Triumphant Return Home   

20.   Listener’s Guide to Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet   

21.   Listener’s Guide to Prokofiev: Tragic Last Years   

An Impolitic Composer in a Political World 

The summer of 1917 saw
Russia in the throes of epochal crisis. Several months earlier, in the wake of military disasters in World War I and critical shortages of food and other essentials throughout the nation, Czarist troops had refused to move against workers staging a general strike in Saint Petersburg. Before long most of the garrison had joined the workers’ revolt. From the capital the revolution spread throughout the country, and the centuries-old dynasty of the Czars toppled. The ensuing months brought a fierce struggle for control of the country, with moderates of the Provisional Government pitted against a radical Bolshevik element led by Vladimir Lenin. Events favored the radicals. In July, after an ill-considered military offensive resulted in horrific casualties on the front, large portions of the army mutinied. Spontaneous demonstrations against the war and its attendant privations brought half a million workers into the streets of Saint Petersburg. An attempted military coup failed when workers persuaded the soldiers to join their cause. In October, Lenin’s faction would stage a second revolt, ousting the Provisional Government and establishing the world’s first Communist state. In the midst of this turmoil, a young Russian composer sat in a pleasant village near Saint Petersburg writing a symphony that affectionately parodied the elegant music of the eighteenth century. Nothing could have been more incongruous with the historic events then shaking the country than the sound of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony. Refined, ironic and nostalgic by turns, the piece gives no hint of any concern with the struggles that were altering the political landscape of Russia and the world. Prokofiev later claimed that he welcomed the revolution that ended the Czar’s regime, but both his conduct and his music betray a profound indifference to the question of who would rule the country. He had many interests besides music — philosophy, theater, chess, natural science — but politics was never among them. Prokofiev’s disregard for politics shaped his career. It allowed him to leave his homeland following the Russian Revolution. “We should work together,” a Soviet official chided him when he applied for an exit visa in 1918, but Prokofiev’s only concern was to be where he could present his music and earn a living as a composer. More than a decade later he returned to the Soviet Union, a country vastly different from the one he had left. Once again it was musical opportunities rather than political conviction that motivated him. The nation had enjoyed a tentative cultural renaissance during the first decade of Communist rule, and Prokofiev found himself warmly welcomed by Russian artists who had followed his career abroad. There would be film scores and ballets to write in Moscow, an audience eager for his newest compositions. Government policies that did not directly concern the arts were of no consequence to him.Prokofiev had shown himself to be not only apolitical but somewhat impolitic throughout his early career. As a conservatory student he barely hid his impatience with teachers who looked askance at his forays into modern harmony. His early concerts scandalized conservative audiences. The young Prokofiev was brash and sure of himself. He expressed his views openly and once threatened to sue the management of a Chicago opera company over a delay in producing his Love of Three Oranges. That action nearly canceled the production entirely, but Prokofiev wanted to stand his ground in the dispute. Compromise did not come easily or naturally to him.   

Days of Darkness

 Prokofiev’s failure to interest himself in political realities, together with his tremendous confidence in his own genius, led him to ignore the darkening climate for artists in the
Soviet Union. When he returned to his homeland, Joseph Stalin had just consolidated power. For the first year or two of Stalin’s reign, the relatively lax control the government had exerted over Soviet artists after the Revolution remained in effect. But the situation changed dramatically during the 1930's. Minions of the Communist Party began to issue directives to composers, telling them what kind of music was acceptable and what was not. Failure to heed these orders could have dire consequences. Prokofiev initially felt that his fame and stature as the leading Soviet composer placed him above criticism, especially if he played the role of good socialist artist by writing the occasional patriotic piece like his Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution. He discovered otherwise. Early in 1948 an official edict denouncing a number of the nation’s most prominent composers singled Prokofiev out as one who no longer wrote in acceptable socialist style. As if to emphasize how serious it was, the government arrested his first wife on charges of spying. Prokofiev duly issued a public apology, vowing to cleave more closely to the Party’s wisdom. It was a pro forma statement, the kind that many Soviet artists made under duress during the dark days of Stalinism, but it seemed to have wounded his soul. His formerly prolific production of music now slowed to a trickle, and his health slowly declined. Ironically, Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin, the news of his passing overshadowed by that of the Soviet dictator’s demise. Even in death, Prokofiev could not escape Stalin’s domineering presence.  

Prokofiev’s Early Life and Career

Prokofiev was born in a small village in what is now the Ukraine, where his father managed the estate of a wealthy landowner. He was a bright and precocious child who enjoyed writing and staging theatrical productions with his friends. His mother was a competent pianist, and it was from her that he received his first instruction in music. His musical talent quickly revealed itself, and at age thirteen he was enrolled in the Conservatory of Music at Saint Petersburg. Prokofiev spent ten years in the school. During that time he developed into a superb pianist and acquired a solid grounding in composition. He also exasperated the more conservative members of the faculty with his rebellious nature and his eagerness to use unconventional harmonies in the pieces he wrote.After graduating from the Conservatory Prokofiev set about establishing himself as a professional composer and pianist. He visited London, Paris and other cities in Western Europe and wrote a number of outstanding compositions, including his very popular “Classical” Symphony. But the revolution that convulsed Russia in 1917 brought the nation’s concert life to a near standstill. Prokofiev therefore decided to seek his fortune abroad — first of all in America. He intended to be gone only a year or so, but nearly a decade would pass before he again saw his homeland.Prokofiev reached the United States after a long journey by train across Siberia, then by ship to Japan and finally across the Pacific to San Francisco. He found that he could support himself playing piano recitals, but American audiences had little interest in his own music. The one major work he produced during his three-year-long sojourn in the country was the opera Love of Three Oranges, commissioned and produced by the opera company in Chicago. In 1922 Prokofiev once again crossed an ocean — this time the Atlantic — in order to pursue his career in Europe. For the next five years Prokofiev lived in Germany and France, primarily in Paris, though he traveled frequently throughout the continent giving concerts of his music. During this time he married a Spanish soprano, Lina Codina, with whom he eventually had two sons. His mother, who had left Russia during the civil war that followed the revolution there, also joined him. These were productive years for Prokofiev, ones that yielded operas, ballets and orchestral pieces such as his Third Piano Concerto. And yet, Prokofiev never felt quite at home in Western Europe, nor fully appreciated. In Paris he lived and worked in the shadow of another expatriate Russian, Igor Stravinsky, who had emerged as the leader of the French-Russian school of musical modernists. Moreover, Prokofiev’s reserved manner and often sarcastic humor prevented him from forming close ties with fellow musicians or other artists. In 1927 Prokofiev undertook a concert tour to the Soviet Union and was greeted by large and appreciative audiences. The success of this venture prompted him to visit again in 1929 and 1932. Beginning in 1933 he spent substantial periods of time in Moscow, and in 1936 he moved there permanently with his family. The wandering composer had come home.  

The Soviet Years

 Upon returning to the
Soviet Union Prokofiev immediately assumed a position as the nation’s leading composer. His music had attained considerable popularity and prestige during the years of his absence, and the reputation he had gained for himself in the West exceeded that of any Soviet artist at the time. His stature brought tangible rewards and opportunities. He lived far better than most Russians, and apart from the occasional patriotic piece expected of all Soviet composers, Prokofiev was free to pursue whatever musical project most interested him. He had invitations to write for the celebrated Russian ballet companies and for the burgeoning Soviet film industry, but he could also take time for concert pieces such as piano sonatas and symphonies. He was sought out, and his music championed, by the nation’s leading instrumentalists. During the first decade of his residence in the Soviet Union Prokofiev created such ambitious works as the ballet Romeo and Juliet, film scores including the much-admired Alexander Nevsky and Lieutenant Kije, and the heroic Fifth Symphony. But though successful and productive, this period was not entirely placid for Prokofiev. During the early 1940's his marriage disintegrated. Eventually he was remarried to the Russian literary scholar Mira Mendelson. With the end of World War II Prokofiev joined the rest of the Soviet citizenry in looking forward to a new era of prosperity and national rebuilding. What occurred instead was an increase in suspicion and repression, brought on by the advent of the Cold War. The frost of the new political atmosphere extended even to music. In January 1948 the Communist Party strongly denounced many of the nation’s leading composers for failing to provide music suited to the taste of the masses and indulging instead in the sin of bourgeois “formalism,” a code for modern compositional technique. Prokofiev was among the composers singled out for criticism. It could hardly have been coincidence that within a month his foreign-born former wife was arrested on the patently false charge of spying and exiled to a Siberian gulag.Prokofiev had been suffering various health problems even before the Party’s denunciation. Now his spirit seemed weakened also. During the five years that remained to him he composed with diminished vigor. His one really successful work of this period was a concerto-like Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra, written for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Whether Prokofiev would have recovered some of his former energy and enthusiasm during the “cultural thaw” of the Khrushchev years will never be known. By a remarkable coincidence, he died the same day as Stalin: March 5, 1953.  

Character and Personality

Prokofiev the man embodied a tangle of contradictions. Although extremely intelligent and well-traveled, he remained in many ways naVve — not only with regards to politics but in his personal dealings as well. He expressed his opinions with a candor that often was tactless, then was surprised when his views provoked resentment. He was witty and fun-loving, but not particularly warm. Many acquaintances described him as aloof and guarded. “He was friendly, but not an easy guy to talk to,” recalled the American composer Aaron Copland, who met Prokofiev several times in the 1920's. “He was boyish, easily bored and even impolite at times. ... He was very bright and outspoken, and I can’t imagine that he would ever hide how he felt about anything.” Other composers also found it difficult to get close to Prokofiev. Igor Stravinsky, for example, stated that “one could see Prokofiev a thousand times without establishing any profound connection with him.”The sense of sardonic comedy that often sounds in Prokofiev’s music was very much part of his personality. Prokofiev’s humor sprang from genuine playfulness and a delight in life’s ironies and absurdities, but it also served as a weapon. More than one acquaintance felt the sting of his wit, which occasionally exhibited a streak of cruelty. Prokofiev did not suffer fools gladly, and he often intimidated those with whom he worked. Once, when accompanying a singer in a performance of his songs, he reduced her to tears by berating her effort in front of the audience. Prokofiev was highly disciplined in his approach to his art and, indeed, to life as a whole. He rarely passed a day without composing, and even as a student was extremely productive. He kept sketch books for years and was an inveterate list-maker who zealously catalogued the compositions he had written, the cities he had visited, the chess games he had played. He could spend hours studying road maps and train schedules. Even his principal hobbies, stamp-collecting and chess, showed a penchant for organization and order.These same qualities governed the composer’s domestic life, which was organized around his need to compose. As a father, he was stern and reluctant to show affection openly. And yet he loved the games, stories and play of children, which served as the basis for some of his compositions (most famously Peter and the Wolf). No doubt memories of his own childhood  had much to do with this. An only child, Prokofiev had been doted on by an adoring mother. The composer remained close to her until the end of her days. Prokofiev’s relationships with his two wives remain a murky subject. The first, Lina, was a glamorous and sophisticated singer who, like the composer, had traveled widely and made a successful career in music. Stylish and gregarious, she never fit in with Soviet society when she settled in Moscow with her husband in the 1930's, and her fiery Spanish temperament was diametrically opposed to Prokofiev’s. The resulting clash of personalities eventually brought about a fatal rift within their marriage. Mira Mendelson, the composer’s second wife, could hardly have been more dissimilar. Plain, shy and bookish, she was not a musician and had never traveled beyond Russia. And yet she made a better intellectual companion for Prokofiev, one who could share her knowledge and love of literature and help him write his autobiography and fashion the librettos for his vocal compositions, including the great opera War and Peace. It seems likely that Prokofiev loved each of these women in a different way. Even after he left her for Mira, he continued to support Lina. It was most unfortunate that Lina was trapped in the Soviet Union following the collapse of her marriage. She suffered terribly, spending years in a Siberian labor camp after being arrested in 1948, but never lost her devotion to Prokofiev. Many years later, after gaining her freedom and permission to return to the West, she narrated a recording of Peter and the Wolf, reciting the text fluently in three languages.  

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Opus 25,“Classical” 

Prokofiev’s found the inspiration for his first symphony in the music of Haydn. As he explained in his memoirs: “It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived into our age, he would have preserved his own way of composing and, at the same time, absorbed something from the new music. That was the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the classical style. While the work’s proportions and mock na
Vveté evoke the eighteenth century, its tonal language clearly is of a later age. A humorous tone prevails, even in the elegant Larghetto. It is somewhat surprising that Prokofiev could fashion such a carefree score at a time when his native Russia was convulsed by war and revolution. But as he himself later admitted, Prokofiev was oblivious to the historic events of 1917. The antique gaiety and charm of the “Classical” Symphony recall a happier, more innocent time.  

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Opus 26

Although Prokofiev composed his Third Piano Concerto in 1921, most of the musical ideas that went into the work had originated some time earlier. So rich in ideas were Prokofiev’s sketch books that he could later declare: “When I began working on the concerto ... I already had all the thematic material I needed except for the third theme of the finale and the subordinate theme of the first movement.” This is the most brilliant and in all ways most successful of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos. The first movement opens with a lyrical melody. When the tempo abruptly shifts to a driving Allegro, the composer transforms this idea into a more vigorous theme announced by the piano. The ensuing Andantino unfolds in theme-and-variations form. In the finale, Prokofiev recaptures the drive of the opening movement in passages of impressive keyboard virtuosity. He balances these athletic pages, however, with a lyrical central episode.  

Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet

 Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, the outstanding choreographic treatment of Shakespeare’s perennially popular tragedy, endured a troubled birth. Completed in 1935, it waited five years until it reached the stage of  the famed Kirov Theater in
Leningrad. The first production was marked by heated quarrels between Prokofiev and the choreographer, Leonid Lavrovsky, and the dancers had difficulty grasping the score. Remarkably, the Kirov’s performance of the ballet in January 1940 triumphed, and Prokofiev’s music soon proved one of the most popular dance scores of the twentieth century. In it, the composer united the energy, wit and glinting musical textures that had characterized his youthful scores with the romantic lyricism that emerged in his work mainly after his return to the Soviet Union. The breadth of musical expression thus achieved serves to reflect the wide range of characters, situations and emotions in the play.


Suggestions for Further Listening 

If you enjoyed the music of Sergei Prokofiev presented on this album, you may wish to hear other works by this composer. Here is an annotated  list of some of Prokofiev’s best-known compositions. All are available on compact disc.

Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Opus 100

Composed in 1944, this work reflects something of the spirit of the Soviet people as they began to turn the tide of history’s most horrific war against the Nazi invaders. Prokofiev called “a symphony of the triumph of the human spirit,” and it stands as one of the several greatest works of its kind written during the twentieth century.


Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2

Prokofiev’s two concertos for violin and orchestra are among his most appealing works. Like the Classical Symphony, completed at almost the same time, the First Violin Concerto is distinguished by transparent textures and clear, uncluttered musical architecture, the latter derived in part from the composer’s re-workings of eighteenth-century forms. The Second Violin Concerto dates from 1935 and partakes of the more open melodiousness that came into Prokofiev’s music around the time of his repatriation.


“Lieutenant Kije” Suite, Opus 60

In 1934 Prokofiev wrote music for a film adaptation of a satiric story about a non-existent soldier who rises to the rank of general. The concert suite the composer extracted from the film score gives us Prokofiev at his most genial, with music that is tuneful, poetic and brilliantly orchestrated.

Peter and the Wolf, Opus 67

This “symphonic fairy-tale for children,” as Prokofiev called it, remains probably the most successful “classical” piece ever created for youngsters. The music vividly portrays the story of a courageous boy who uses his wits to trap a ravenous wolf.

Alexander Nevsky, Opus 78

Having produced a highly effective score for Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film about the hero who drove the Teutonic knights from Russia in the thirteenth-century, Prokofiev adapted much of his music into this dramatic cantata. Scored for solo mezzo-soprano, orchestra and chorus, Alexander Nevsky contains some of the composer’s most stirring music.

Suite from Love of Three Oranges, Opus 33-b

The opera Love of Three Oranges is a slightly surreal  and very entertaining fable, and Prokofiev’s music is one of his most melodious works. The suite he culled from the opera includes the famous and ever-popular March.