|Prokofiev in New York in 1918|
The Frager recording later became the first Prokofiev I’ve owned. Since then, I have accumulated recordings of most of the Prokofiev compositions that have been recorded. Early on, my collection required buying Soviet recordings of less familiar pieces, but these have been superseded by more modern LPs and CDs. Apparently, Prokofiev’s music has increased in popularity in recent years. In Pittsburgh, I have even been able to attend performances of Prokofiev orchestral compositions and ballets. My collection also includes books by and about the composer.
Many people know at least a few Prokofiev compositions, though they may not even know the name Sergei Prokofiev. His best-known piece is Peter and the Wolf, which, though charming and often performed, is hardly characteristic of Prokofiev’s oeuvre. Similarly uncharacteristic is his First, or “Classical,” Symphony. The symphony was written without the use of a piano and was intended to be the sort of orchestral composition Haydn might have written were he transported to the twentieth century. Somewhat more typical of Prokofiev’s work is the march from his opera The Love for Three Oranges. This piece became popular not from the opera itself but from its use as the theme song for the fifties radio drama The FBI in Peace and War.
It is difficult to definitively characterize Prokofiev’s music. He is most often cited for his “motoristic” rhythms and his lyricism, seemingly contradictory properties. His harmonies are distinctive—his son suggested that he wrote “normal” music and then “Prokofievized” it—as is his propensity to change keys in surprising ways. I think of Prokofiev as the inheritor and developer of the nineteenth-century romantic tradition uncontaminated by excursions into such oddities as twelve-tone serialism.
One of Prokofiev’s greatest musical contributions is his collection of nine piano sonatas. (A fragment of an unfinished tenth sonata remained at the time of his death.) He was a successful concert pianist for much of his life and had a deep understanding of the instrument and its potential. His Third Piano Concerto and Fifth Sympathy are much admired—certainly the most popular of their respective genres—though I am fonder of the aforementioned Second Concerto and Seventh Sympathy. (The second movement of the Second Piano Concerto is a perfect example of a breathless Prokofiev scherzo, by the way.) Prokofiev’s ballet music, particularly from his later ballets—Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and The Story of the Stone Flower—is truly wonderful and often moving. Finally, I should mention that Prokofiev wrote several film scores, the most notable of which was for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The film music was later turned into a cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra. The mezzo-soprano solo, “The Field of the Dead,” a lament for a dead lover, is achingly beautiful.
As I seek to conclude this essay, I am reminded of other Prokofiev pieces that deserve mention, many of them favorites. I did not set out to produce an annotated catalog of the composer’s music, however. To celebrate the birthday, why not listen to some of Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev’s music. If you own no recordings, YouTube can provide you with a good many options.