Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is an excellent example of the Russian composer’s style; modernist harmonic expression with accessible melodies and familiar forms. His life though, was far from a fairytale and chronicles the volatile changes in Russia and the world in the first half of the 20th century.
Prokofiev was born in a country town in what is now eastern Ukraine. His father was very well off and the family enjoyed an aristocratic lifestyle. His mother was an amateur pianist and she would spend hours playing the piano for Sergei even while he was still in the womb. She introduced him to the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and took him to Moscow as a child so that he could see his first opera, Gounod’s Faust.
At the age of 11, Prokofiev began to study piano and composition with Reinhold Gliere in Moscow. But his mother thought that Moscow was too “metropolitan” for Sergei, so she sent him to St. Petersburg to study with Rimsky Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. Prokofiev made a name for himself early; he had to. His father had passed away and he ended up having to support himself through his compositions and performances.
In 1914, he won a competition by playing his own First Piano Concerto. As a reward, his mother sent him on a tour of Europe. A month after he returned, war was declared. Prokofiev had no interest in politics and as the only son of a widow he did not have to serve. However, he couldn’t avoid the February Revolution of 1917 and the end of the Russian Empire. But he was able to leverage the international success of his First Symphony to leave Russia and find another home.
He first settled in San Francisco, but after a couple of seasons discovered that his music was not well received by the American public or critics. He then moved to Paris where he enjoyed renewed popularity for the reminder of the 1920s. The next decade saw financial strain and the growing menace of Fascism in Germany. The Soviet Union began to ask Prokofiev to come back and join the composers union. He returned to his homeland with the promise that every note he wrote would be performed.
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union issued the Zhdanov Decree which denounced the music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian. Under this censorship Prokofiev’s music was banned, his finances floundered and he amassed crippling debt. About this time his wife was arrested for espionage, interrogated and sentenced to 20 years. Prokofiev withdrew from public life and his health deteriorated.
He died on the same day as Joseph Stalin, March 5, 1953. The papers barely mentioned his passing and his funeral service was meager. Yet, today he is considered to be one of the most popular composers of the 20th century.