Prokofiev/Stravinsky

The 20th Century is marked by experimentalism and diversity.  Styles during this period included Impressionism, Late Romanticism, Neoclassicism, the Second Viennese School, Electronic Music, and Serialism.  Composers approached dissonance in diverse ways, some more traditional, some avant garde.

Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergei Prokofiev was born in The Ukraine.  His father was an agricultural engineer who managed a large estate, and his mother, though born a serf, was a well-educated woman with a broad knowledge of the arts. Sergei was schooled in the natural sciences by his father, European languages by French and German governesses, and learned about the arts from his mother. He began piano lessons at age four and showed great talent. His mother took him to opera performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This exposure inspired the nine-year-old boy to write his first opera in the spring of 1900, which he and his playmates debuted for his family.In 1904, at age 13, Prokofiev passed the entrance exams for the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was much younger than most of his classmates.  He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov.  He often expressed his dissatisfaction with much of his conservatory education and annoyed his fellow students with his criticism. In 1914, Prokofiev performed his own First Piano Concerto for which he won first prize in the diploma piano competition, which also included a grand piano as a prize.In 1914, Prokofiev traveled to Paris and to London where he heard the music of Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel.  He did not get along with Stravinsky.  Also, through a mutual friend he was introduced to Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes. This meeting led to the commission of a ballet. However, when Prokofiev later met with Diaghilev in Rome to show him sketches, Diaghilev dropped the project.

In the Classical Symphony, Op. 25 (1916-1917) Prokofiev explored a new compositional direction.  He set out to write a work that imagined what it would be like if Franz Joseph Haydn were to write a symphony in the early twentieth century. This work became a hallmark of the emerging neo-classical style.

The February Revolution of 1918 took Prokofiev by surprise. He supported the general idea of revolution, especially in terms of seeking a radical break with tradition in the arts. However, he did not understand the wider implications of the revolution’s socialist agenda as it applied to the arts, specifically concerning the gradual tightening of stylistic control that the Soviet regime subsequently imposed on the creation of art. Ultimately, the political and social upheaval of that year led Prokofiev to go abroad.  He travelled to the US in 1918, where he was unfavorably compared to another famous Russian immigrant, Sergei Rachmaninov.  Prokofiev described his time in the United States as miserable, but despite this sentiment, he was productive.

He moved back to Paris in 1923 with his new wife, the Spanish mezzo-soprano Lina Llubera. He had trouble making his way in Paris, possibly because the concert-goers were looking for an even more marked break with traditional idioms than Prokofiev’s music represented.

During Prokofiev’s years abroad, he maintained his ties to Russia by returning for concert tours and performances.  His music was published by the Soviet State Music Publishing House.  Prokofiev moved his family back to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1936. By this time in Russia, the return meant that he was required to follow certain conventions in his compositions. By the late 1920s the Communist Party had begun to view the most recent artistic movements, such as formalism, impressionism, and cubism as decadent, since they existed before the revolution. Under the Soviet government a special bureau was created, the Composers’ Union, to keep track of artists and their works.

In 1941, he separated from his wife and began a relationship with the twenty-five-year-old Mira Mendelson. This divorce created an unstable situation for his former wife.  Being of Spanish descent and living in Russia, she was closely scrutinized by the Soviet government. In 1948, she was convicted of espionage for trying to send money to her mother via an embassy and was sentenced to twenty years in the Gulag, only to be released after Stalin’s death.

During World War II, there was a slight relaxing of the government control over the arts, but in 1946 the Soviet Party once again tightened its oversight on its production. Under the new stricter policies, a majority of Prokofiev’s works were seen as examples of decadent “formalism” and were therefore deemed a threat to the Soviet people. In 1948, Prokofiev wrote a public letter to the Composers’ Union, denouncing his earlier music.

Ironically, Prokofiev’s death on March 5, 1953, went largely unnoticed, since the death of his cultural oppressor, Stalin, died on the same day.

Igor Stravinsky (1881-1971)

Stravinsky was born near St. Petersburg into a musical family.  He was taught to play the piano, but his family wanted him to study law.  He attended the university in St. Petersburg while maintaining an interest in music.  At age 20, he began to work with Rimsky-Korsakov.

Stravinsky became immediately successful.  He attracted the attention of Serge Diaghelev, the impresario who founded the Ballet Russes.  During this period, called The Russian Period, Stravinsky composed his three ballets, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring (1913).  The opening night of The Rite of Spring was scandalous, the audience rioted, and Stravinsky had to escape through a back door.

World War I and the Russian Revolution forced Stravinsky to move to Switzerland.  The difficulty and expense of assembling a large body of performers worked hand in hand with his artistic evolution, and Stravinsky embraced Neoclassicism.    Stravinsky moved to France and then to Los Angeles, CA.  In 1945, he became a citizen of the United States.  Significant works from this period include A Soldier’s Tale, Apollo, Symphony of Psalms, The Rake’s Progress, among others.

Stravinsky composed in the Neoclassical style until age 70, when he embraced serialism.  This is the twelve-tone technique developed by Arnold Schonberg.  Much of the work of this period is religious in nature.  Stravinsky developed the technique to fit his own artistic needs.

Stravinsky ended his life in a celebrity status rarely seen among composers.