Music Sergey Prokofiev
Simon Morrison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0069


Sergey Prokofiev (b. 1891–d. 1953) composed some of the most beloved works in the Western tradition, including Peter and the Wolf (1936), Romeo and Juliet (1935), the Third Piano Concerto (1921), and the “Classical” Symphony (1917). In his youth he produced self-consciously dissonant music, earning himself the reputation of a modernist enfant terrible. In the late 1920s he turned to a neoclassical aesthetic he dubbed “new simplicity.” These style periods, roughly speaking, ceded in the late 1930s to a more grandiose mode reflecting Stalinist artistic policies. After 1948, he experienced a creative decline precipitated by debilitating illness and political denunciation. Following his prodigious childhood in Ukraine and Russia, Prokofiev traveled the globe, living and working in the United States, France, Germany, and ultimately, the Soviet Union. He gave piano recitals in hundreds of cities, from Montreal to Morocco, Los Angeles to Lisbon. He prided himself on a diverse array of contacts, and indulged his interests in disparate philosophies, esoteric religions (he became a Christian Scientist in 1924), and the sister arts. There exist superb studies of the middle decades of his career (1918–1948) and several of his showcase scores. Much, however, remains unknown. The problem has never been a lack of source materials, but rather access to them. The principal holdings of Prokofiev’s manuscripts are the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow, and the Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths College, London. There are other important holdings in St. Petersburg, Paris, Washington DC, and New York. Certain collections remain closed at the request of the Prokofiev estate, owing to their sensitive personal contents. Research remains to be completed on Prokofiev’s abrupt decision to leave Russia in 1918 and his long-considered move back in 1936; the arrest and imprisonment of his first wife Lina; and the logic behind Prokofiev’s devastating official rebuke in 1948. There are other biographical gaps, including the nature of his relationship with Sergei Rachmaninoff; his interaction with the composers of Les Six; the background of his second wife Mira Mendelson; his health troubles; and the legal fight over his estate following Lina’s release from the Gulag in 1956. An even more pressing need is a critical edition of the works and a catalogue raisonné. The editions of the scores circulated by Prokofiev’s publishers in Europe (Sikorski), the United Kingdom (Boosey & Hawkes), and the United States (G. Schirmer) are error-filled, and the Soviet edition from 1962 is incomplete. To account for the lacunae, major opera and ballet theaters have assembled their own scores. In recent years, new editions of Prokofiev’s third and fourth operas, The Love for Three Oranges (1919) and The Fiery Angel (1930), have appeared, together with various reprints of his nine piano sonatas. Work is under way on critical editions of his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his opera War and Peace (1942). Several lesser works, including Prokofiev’s Fizkul’turnaya muzïka, conceived in 1939 for an athletic display, and Tonya, a short film score from 1942, are available only in manuscript.

General Overviews

There exist few studies of Russian and Soviet history that provide proper context for Prokofiev’s international career. The emphasis, regrettably or not, has been placed on his Soviet period. Maes 2006 writes about Prokofiev’s relocation to Moscow from Paris as part of a general history of Russian and Soviet music, noting that the composer reversed the path taken by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and others who left revolutionary Russia. Ross 2008 makes similar points in an entertaining book on musical modernism. Taruskin 2010 provides a trenchant critique of Prokofiev’s decision in a collection of reprinted articles on Russian music.

  • Maes, Francis. A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

    A straightforward overview of Russian music from the eighteenth century to the collapse of the Soviet Union, relying considerably on Richard Taruskin’s scholarship and placing strong emphasis on the intersection of music and politics.

  • Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Picador, 2008.

    An eminently readable history of musical modernism intended for a general audience. Ross addresses Prokofiev’s Soviet period as part of a grim discussion of music and totalitarianism, his other point of focus being, inevitably, Shostakovich.

  • Taruskin, Richard. On Russian Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

    Six chapters in this gathering of reprinted newspaper, magazine, and program-booklet articles concern Prokofiev, with chapter 20 (“Prokofieff’s Return”) discussing his move from Paris to Moscow, chapter 22 (“Great Artists Serving Stalin Like a Dog”) critiquing Ivan the Terrible, and chapter 23 (“Stalin Lives on in the Concert Hall, but Why?”), similarly critiquing the cantata Zdravitsa (A Toast!). Taruskin questions the ethics of performing Prokofiev’s propagandistic music. The other Prokofiev-related chapters in the collection (18, 19, and 21) center on the operas.

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