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Sergei Prokofiev


 

(Compiled March, 1998)

 

Sergei Prokofiev, as he writes in his memoirs, "first saw the light of day on Wednesday 23rd April at five in the afternoon." The year was 1891, the centenary of Mozart’s death, the place a small village in the Ukraine, Sontsovka. Prokofiev’s father, originally from Moscow, was an agricultural engineer in this important region, his mother was, in Gliere’s words, "a tall woman with magnificent, intelligent eyes... who knew how to create around herself a warm, natural atmosphere." Having lost two daughters she devoted her life to music and spent two months a year in Moscow or St. Petersburg taking piano lessons. It was she who was the musical influence on young Sergei, beginning to teach him the piano at age 3. He wrote his first composition when he was six, The Indian Galop. After a trip to Moscow at age 8 where he was exposed to The Sleeping Beauty, Faust and Prince Igor, he declared "I want to write an opera." Three or four months later he presented his parents with The Giant, an opera in three acts and six tableau for solo piano. Prokofiev eventually was tutored by young Reinhold Glière for whom he developed a great affection, especially after he had accepted Prokofiev’s challenge to a duel with pistols. From time to time he also took trips to Moscow to visit Taneyev (a composer and the future director of the Bolshoi Theater).

By age twelve it was decided that Prokofiev should continue his studies at a Conservatoire. Eventually, in 1904 he was sent to the St. Petersburg Conservatoire so that his mother could be close to him. The Conservatoire at this time was under the direction of Rimsky-Korsakov. He was also introduced to Glazounov. Despite a faltering first meeting Glazounov dedicated his Fantasy Waltz "To my dear colleague, Sergei Prokofiev, from Glazounov."

Against the established thinking of the Conservatoire, Prokofiev became a committed anti-Romantic, not liking the music of Chopin and Liszt. In 1914, despite not playing one of the prescribed Classical concertos, he won the Rubenstein Prize for piano performance playing his own composition.

The year of the Russian Revolution, 1917, turned out to be a creative time for Prokofiev producing the Violin Concerto in D major and the Classical Symphony. Prokofiev moved to the United States in 1918 where he gave his first recital November 11th. In America he was greatly discussed, somewhat admired but little liked being variously described as "the Bolshevik pianist" or "Steel fingers, steel biceps, steel triceps - he is a tonal steel trust." The lack of success for his opera The Love of Three Oranges, commissioned by the Chicago Opera in 1921, was enough to spur Prokofiev’s relocation to Europe.

On return trips to Russia in 1927 and 1929 Prokofiev was enthusiastically received. Following a comparative lack of success in Europe and the United States, he returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union for good in 1932. The next years produced Lieutenant Kijé, Romeo and Juliet, War and Peace and Cinderella. In his homeland he was celebrated and honored until the 1948 crackdown on Soviet composers by the Central Committee under Stalin’s orders. (This was also the year of his marriage to Mira Mendelson.) After that time all music had to conform to strict criteria to "advance Soviet musical culture so as to lead to the creation, in all fields of music, of high-quality works worthy of the Soviet people." The result was uncontroversial music of artistic inconsequence.

Prokofiev died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Moscow, March 5, 1953, the same day that Stalin died. He was buried near Scriabin and Chekov.

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The following is a short list of Prokofiev’s works that were not written for ballets but have been used for choreography.

 

Symphony #5  Image choréographique/Lichine
Waltz Suite  An Evening’s Waltz/Robbins (1973)
   Désir/Kudelka (1991)
Piano Concerto #3 and Classical Symphony  Gala Performance/Tudor
Piano Concerto #5  Harbinger/Feld
 Lieutenant Kijé  Russian Soldier/Fokine (his last ballet)
   Lieutenant Kijé/ Lapauri & Tarasova
Violin Concerto #1  Triad/MacMillan
Peter and the Wolf  Adolph Bolm (1940)
   Frank Staff (1940)
   A. Varlamov (1959)
   Patrick Belda (1966)
Overture on Hebrew Themes  Le Retour/Skibine
Visions fugitives  Fugitive Visions/Job Sanders

 

 

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Prokofiev and his ballet music


Prokofiev’s music for ballet spans his career from 1915 to his death in 1953. The early ballets, written at Diaghilev’s request, were first performed in the heady post-war France. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was in the forefront of artistic innovation, and every new production was expected to be even more astonishing than the one before.

 

Prokofiev and Diaghilev met for the first time in London in 1914 and, as it was the shrewd and ultimately sagacious impresario’s practice to encourage young talent, he presented the composer with his first ballet commission. Diaghilev put Prokofiev in touch with the poet Sergei Gorodetsky, telling him to create a ballet on a Russian fairy tale or prehistoric theme. Prokofiev selected for his subject the prehistoric nomads who roamed the Ukrainian steppes, the Scythians. The ballet was rejected by Diaghilev before its completion because it sought to emulate Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Diaghilev was looking for something to "outrage" the public with something new. However, the ballet music, whose orchestral effects and subject have some similarities to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, was revamped into an orchestral suite. (It was to become Prokofiev’s practice to derive orchestral suites and symphonies from music originally intended for the theater.) Newly entitled Scythian Suite: Ala and Lolli, Op. 20, it was introduced by the composer at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, January 29, 1916.

Diaghilev continued his connection with Prokofiev by arranging a piano recital in Rome in 1915. Despite the termination of his first assignment, he gave Prokofiev a second commission which resulted in the score for Chout (sometimes known as The Buffoon) to be choreographed by Massine. The piano score was completed in 1915, but in the meantime Massine left the Ballets Russes. Mikhail Larionov and Tadeo Slavinsky were subsequently chosen to collaborate on the choreography. The production was eventually mounted in May 1921. When Diaghilev brought a group of patrons to a final dress rehearsal of the ballet in London, Prokofiev was conducting. He considered it a working rehearsal and, wishing to be more comfortable, removed his jacket. Several elderly ladies from London high society, scandalized, rose to their feet and departed with their escorts. It was a signal for all the other invited guests to depart.

In 1925 Diaghilev asked Prokofiev to write a ballet on a "Soviet subject" that would reflect the contemporary life in Soviet Russia. Prokofiev met with Sergei Yakulov, a Soviet theatrical constructivist artist who was hired as set designer for the new ballet. They agreed the ballet should be a portrayal of the industrial progress of the USSR. Prokofiev gave the music the title Urignol - derived from U.R.S.S. and parodying Stravinsky’s Rossignol - but Diaghilev disliked the name. In the end the ballet was called Le Pas d’Acier. Despite trying, Diaghilev was unsuccessful in his quest to secure the services of a young Soviet choreographer. He eventually turned to Massine. Parisians eagerly anticipated a Bolshevik propaganda ballet. Although it was well received, the ballet was reviewed as "a weird work beginning with its title and ending with its music and choreography".

For Diaghilev’s last Paris season of the Ballets Russes, Prokofiev composed the music for Prodigal Son with choreography by the young Balanchine. Opening May 21, 1929, it was a big success in Paris and later Berlin and London.

During the summer of 1931 Prokofiev was commissioned to write the music for a ballet by Serge Lifar entitled Sur le Boryshène (On the Dnieper). Prokofiev dedicated the work to Diaghilev who had died in Venice in 1929. Despite being a collaboration of experienced and established artists, the ballet was not a success.

A major success for Prokofiev, although long and difficult in its creation, was the ballet Romeo and Juliet which premiered in 1940 for the Kirov Theater.

 

 Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a very different score and subject matter than any of Prokofiev’s earlier balletic successes. By 1934 when he began writing Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev was working in the Soviet Union. He writes, "[The Russians] like long ballets which take a whole evening; abroad the public prefers short ballets....This difference of viewpoint arises from the fact that we [Russians] attach greater importance to the plot and its development; abroad it is considered that in ballet the plot plays a secondary part, and three one-act ballets give one the chance to absorb a large number of impressions from three sets of artists, choreographers and composers in a single evening." It is also possible that the taste for light-weight sensational works had waned in the Soviet Union. Classical art in all its forms was restored to its pedestal. In the 1930s many Soviet artists forsook experimentation in order to avoid controversy. Prokofiev also was probably maturing and changing his emphasis with age.

Prokofiev wrote, "In the latter part of 1934 there was talk of the Kirov Theater of Leningrad staging a ballet of mine. I was interested in a lyrical subject. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was suggested. But the Kirov Theater backed out and I signed a contract with the Moscow Bolshoi Theater instead. In the spring of 1935 Radlov and I worked out a scenario, consulting with the choreographer on questions of ballet technique. The music was written in the course of the summer, but the Bolshoi Theater declared it impossible to dance to and the contract was broken."

The Kirov Theater had a purge of "avant garde" artists at this time, and Radlov was ousted as its director. The official reason for cancellation was that choreography to Shakespeare would be sacrilege.

Romeo and Juliet to the Prokofiev score was first performed in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938, an event that went by almost unnoticed. Meanwhile, Prokofiev had preserved his music for Romeo and Juliet in two orchestral suites and ten piano pieces in 1936 and 1937. A third orchestral suite was arranged in 1946.

The first Soviet performance of the ballet was given at the Kirov Theater on January 11, 1940. Preceding the first performance there were many disagreements between the choreographer, Leonid Lavrosky, and Prokofiev. The dancers failed to understand the music; and the orchestra, in a last-ditch effort to avoid a disaster, tried to cancel the show. Playing on the last lines of Shakespeare’s play, a saying current in the theater was "There is no tale of greater woe than Prokofiev’s music for Romeo." Galina Ulanova, the first Soviet to dance Juliet, said she wished for music that had "some melodic pattern of our own, something nearer to our own conception of how the love of Romeo and Juliet should be expressed." Despite so little hope for success the ballet was well received and has been popular ever since. The Lavrovsky ballet was finally presented by the Bolshoi Ballet December 28, 1946.

The score of Romeo and Juliet has a very strong structure based on the original libretto. This has presented choreographers with either a very strong blueprint to follow or too many restrictions if they are not inclined to agree with every detail. There were four hands in the making of the libretto. Prokofiev and his original collaborator and longtime associate Sergei Radlov were joined by playwright Adrian Piotrovsky and the choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky who made numerous changes.

In his autobiography Prokofiev writes, "There was quite a fuss at the time about our attempts to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending - in the last act Romeo arrives a minute earlier, finds Juliet alive and everything ends well. The reasons for this bit of barbarism were purely choreographic: living people can dance, the dying cannot.....But what really caused me to change my mind about the whole thing was a remark someone made to me about the ballet: ‘Strictly speaking, your music does not express any real joy at the end.’ That was quite true. After several conferences with the choreographers, it was found that the tragic ending could be expressed in the dance and in due time the music for that ending was written."

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Prokofiev wrote two other ballets, Cinderella (1945) and The Tale of the Stone Flower (1954). It is interesting to note that Prokofiev achieved much greater success for his ballets than for his operas on which he spent considerably more time.

Following the success of Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev was commissioned by the Kirov Ballet to create Cinderella to a scenario by Nikolai Volkov. Prokofiev was inspired to this task by his admiration for the ballerina Ulanova with whom he had developed a close relationship despite a stormy beginning during rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet. Due to the German invasion of Soviet Russia the ballet was laid aside for two years. Prokofiev offered to fight for his country but was excused "for his genius." He wrote "It was during those days that my plan to compose my opera based on Tolstoi’s War and Peace took shape. The pages describing the battle of the Russian people against Napoleon in 1812 and the rout of the Napoleonic army suddenly felt very close." Separated from his wife and children, Prokofiev concentrated on the completion of his opera War and Peace and some smaller scale works. War and Peace premiered at the Malay Theater, Leningrad, April 18, 1942.

At the end of 1943 Prokofiev returned to Moscow with a complete piano score of Cinderella. By the summer of 1944 the orchestral score was ready. He had set the ballet in his favorite time period, the eighteenth century. He wrote, "What I wanted to put over essentially in the music of Cinderella was the love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and development of this feeling, the obstacles in the way and the realization of the dream at last. I attached great importance to the ‘fairy tale’ side of it which posed a series of interesting problems..."

Although commissioned by the Kirov, it was the Bolshoi Ballet that first presented Cinderella November 21, 1945. It was a great success for both composer and company. In April 1946 a new production for the Kirov Ballet was mounted. Due to a serious fall leading to brain concussion, Prokofiev was unable to supervise any of the rehearsals. However, there seem to have been none of the problems associated with Romeo and Juliet.

Although first performed in April 1942, the opera War and Peace was revised twice. For the 1946 production it was enlarged to the point that it took two evenings to perform. Finally in 1952, a few months before Prokofiev’s death, a version was created in five acts and ten tableaux.

As with many of his fuller works, Prokofiev developed symphonic suites from Cinderella (Op. 107, 108 & 109), and a Waltz Suite for symphony orchestra, (Op. 110) which includes three waltzes from Cinderella. Following the concussion he suffered in 1946, he moved to a new home in the village of Nikorina Goya, on medical advice. It was there that he put together his Waltz Suite Op 110. Three of the six waltzes are from Cinderella, two from War and Peace and the Mephisto Waltz is from the film Lermontov. "Since we Met" from War and Peace had its origins in the incidental music for the play Yevgeny Onyegin (1936) that was never performed. The full suite was first performed May 13, 1947.

 

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