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Unorthodox and inventive, Sergei Prokofiev's legacy lives on

Sergei Prokofiev, c. 1918.
Sergei Prokofiev, c. 1918.

On the anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev's death, learn more about the rebellious composer and outstanding pianist.

Author Owen Belcher is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the UMKC Conservatory.

March 5 marks the 69th anniversary of the death of Ukrainian-born composer Sergei Prokofiev.

Most people think of Prokofiev as a “Russian composer,” and he did spend most of his career within what is now the Russian Federation. Prokofiev was born, however, in what was called Sontsovka — then, a part of the Russian Empire, now a part of the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

Today, Prokofiev is best known for crowd-pleasing pieces such as Peter and the Wolf, the suites from the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and his “Classical” Symphony No.1. During his lifetime, however, Prokofiev was notorious for his unorthodox musical style and his percussive piano playing. The premiere of his first piano concerto is one example of his musical approach at that time. Competing in a piano competition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the 22-year-old Sergei decided to dispense with the standard repertoire and wrote his own piano concerto for the occasion, winning the coveted Anton Rubenstein Prize and alienating absolutely everyone.

Dictatorial regimes of all flavors have a well-known aversion to the avant-garde, however, and much of Prokofiev’s career was spent trying to navigate the musical tastes of the Soviet regime, which preferred easily digestible works based on overtly patriotic themes. He was only partially successful. On the one hand, he won six Stalin Prizes, but on the other, he was denounced in 1948 along with composers such as Shostakovich and Khachaturian as “formalist” — the dreaded title of ambiguous meaning given to artists who ran afoul of the regime. His reputation and status within the Soviet Union didn’t recover during his lifetime.

In addition to his musical pursuits, Prokofiev was an avid chess player. In 1937, he played a famous match in Moscow with David Oistrakh, the violin virtuoso. Decades earlier, in 1914, he played — and beat — the future World Champion, the Cuban grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca. Chess fans interested in studying the game can do so here.

Music aficionados interested in hearing more of Prokofiev should check out his gargantuan opera, War and Peace, based on the Tolstoy novel of the same name. One version of the opera lasts nearly four hours. At that rate, you might as well read the novel!

The opera, like the novel, partly concerns the repulsion of a foreign invader—a theme that, in a different context, seems especially appropriate on this particular anniversary of Prokofiev’s death.

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