at The University of Chicago
Visit our new site for all current information.

Serge Prokofiev

CONCERT: Piano Recital
February 15 – February 15, 1938


Serge Profieff was born on the Sontzovka estate, government of Ekaterinoslav in the south of Russia, on April 23, 1891. His father came from Moscow, his mother from St. Petersburg. The boy spent all his childhood on his native Ukrainian steppes.

His mother played the piano quite well, preferring, above all, Beethoven and Chopin. So, even from the first years of his infancy, Prokofieff was brought up to love serious music.

When he was five and a half years old , Prokofieff composed his first piece with the ridiculous title of "Le Galop Hindou," probably in consequence of his famine in India of which at that time he had heard his parents speak. This composition was written with mistakes, principally because he did not venture to use the black keys. Other short pieces, a few of which were for four hands, followed the "Galop."

At the age of seven, Prokofieff was taken to Moscow, where he heard "Faust" and "Prince Igor." Returning to the country, he composed his first opera with his own libretto, entitled "Le Ge'ant." To be sure, this opera was altogether childish, with many errors in the composition of the measures and the rhythm obtained with difficulty. The part for solo voice was not there, all the opera having been written as a "clavier a deux mains" without song, like music which was in his mother;s library. In spite of obstacles, the opera was presented by his cousins on the estate of his uncle, who laughingly said to the composer: "When your operas are given at the Imperial Theatre so not forget that your first presentation took place at my house!"

At ten, Prokofieff was taken to Moscow where the great theorician Taneiff interested himself in the young man and advised him to take lessons with Gliere. Under the direction of the latter Prokofieff wrote a symphony, several sonatas and two little operas, this time orchestra and with vocal parts.

In 1904, at the age of thirteen, following the advice of Glasounoff, Prokofieff entered the Conservatory of St. Petersburg, where he stayed ten years, finishing with three diplomas for compositions, piano and orchestral conducting. At the time he began to interest himself in the modern music of Reger and Scriabine until the rules that had taught him at the Conservatory seemed strange and useless, with the result that, although among his professors there were names as celebrated as those of Rimsky-Korsakoff and Liadoff, he profited little from their lessons. Much more useful to him was the class for leaders of orchestra presided over by Tcherepnine, where he was in direct contact with the orchestra and chorus as well as the mounting of operas by the pupils of Conservatory. At the same time, he continued to compose a great deal, finishing during his years at the Conservatory another symphony, in E minor, the operas "Ondine" and "Maddalena," six sonatas and about one hundred piano pieces, none of which were published.

Glazounoff, the Director of the Conservatory, was a very conservative artist and did not approve of the modern taste of the young composer, even regretting that he had advised him to enter the Conservatory. However, he arranged a performance of the new symphony at a private rehearsal. The work sounded badly but the realization of its faults helped the future development of Prokofieff's writing.

Prokofieff's taste for modern music was supported by a society of contemporary music on St. Petersburg. His first public appearance took place in the concerts of this society, when he was eighteen years old. At the same time, Jurgenson's in Moscow began to publish his compositions. In 1914, three months before the War, he ended his studies at the Conservatory, receiving the Rubinstein Prize for being first in his class- but not in his composition class!

When the war broke out, Prokofieff was not mobilized as he belonged to the class of "only son of widowed mother." Russia having more men than munitions, did not call that class until near the end of the War.

He went to London and there met Serge Disghileff, who commissioned him to write a ballet. This ballet was composed on a subject of Scythian mythology, the Scythians being the pre-historic wanderers who roamed the steppes where he was born. Diaghileff not approving this subject, the music destined for the ballet was converted into the "Suite Scythe" (1914). In place of this Prokofieff outlined a new ballet called "The Story of a Jester Who Fooled Seven Other Jesters." But as the presentations of Diaghileff started another work- an opera in four acts, "Le Joueur", after an autobiographical novel by Dostoievsky, because the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg had assured him of the immediate presentations of this opera.

By this time Prokofieff's works had been performed by all the symphonic societies of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Rehearsals for his opera, "Le Joueur," had been begun but they were interrupted by the First Revolution in February 1917. The Government of the Czar was overthrown, but the Bolsheviks were not yet in power. In the course of the same year, Prokofieff finished his first Violin Concerto, the "Symphonie Classique," the Incantation for Choir and Orchestra, "Sept, ils sont sept," as well as the Third and Fourth Sonatas, which were rewritten from old notebooks.

In October 1917 came the Second Revolution, putting the Communist Government in power. This Revolution produced much more disorder in the country: supplies of provisions became low, trains ran very irregularly, the value of the rouble fell disastrously making living very high, and there were no more concerts.

Prokofieff decided to go to America. Although it was very difficult to obtain the money and, above all, a passport to enter a foreign country, he succeeded in procuring the permission of the Soviet Government and a large advance from his new publisher, Serge Koussevitsky (now Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Members of the Government said to him: "You are as revolutionary in art as we are in politics; you ought not to leave us now, but then you wish it-here is your passport!">br>
Prokofieff crossed Siberia and reached Japan. That twenty-six-day journey over Russian territory in the midst of a Civil War was an adventure. He gave three concerts before Nipponese audiences, which were polite and attentive, but uncomprehending. Then by way of Honolulu and San Francisco he arrived in New York in August 1918.

America welcomed Serge Prokofieff from the first with interest. he received engagements for concerts, a contract to record, a request to compose a new opera for the Chicago Opera Company, But America at this time was still not ready to accept and understand ultra modern music, consequently Prokofieff's music was often severely criticized. In spite of obstacles, the contract with the Chicago Opera Company was finally signed and the composer set himself to work on "L'Amour des Trois Oranges," which he finished in 1919. This is a gay and fairy-like opera, taken from a "fiaba" of Carlo Gozzi, Italian classical playwright of the 18th Century, who, in his turn, took the plot from a well-known old story.

In 1920, Prokofieff went to Paris and London, ending his trip around the world. There he again met Diaghileff, who decided to produce his ballet, "Chout." This he did in Paris in 1921, where it was very well received, but when given in London the critics attacked it furiously. In the autumn Chicago produced "L'Amour des Trois Oranges" under the direction of the composer. It had good success, but when performed in New York im February 1922 the opera was but poorly received.

Returning to Europe, Prokofieff composed many works, most of which were performed by Serge Koussevitzsky, faithful propagator of Prokofieff compositions.

In 1926, the dynamic composer-pianist-conductor returned to the United States. This time his music was accepted with much greater enthusiasm as America had developed musically very considerably since his first visit. Modern art was no longer derided or shunned; on the contrary, the public was interested in it. On this tour Prokofieffe was accompanied by his wife, a soprano, known professionally as Lina Llubera, who sang his songs. Engagements in Italy followed his American appearances. In 1927 he made a comprehensive and very successful tour of Russian where he was acclaimed with great fervor. For the last ten years he has been living in Paris, but has made regular visits to the United States.

The Renaissance Society
is a contemporary art
museum free and
open to the public
Sat  Jan 16, 2021