On March 5, 1953, two men die within the same hour of a cerebral hemorrhage. Joseph Stalin’s death provokes such mass hysteria that Sergei Prokofiev’s passing goes practically unnoticed.
The following day, militiamen forcibly carry off the string quartet that had been playing at Prokofiev’s funeral services, shuttling them to the Trade Union House, where the dictator is lying in state.
Here the four musicians proceed to play Tchaikovsky for three days.There is hardly a composer whose biography is so intimately linked with the history of the Soviet Union as Prokofiev’s. He leaves the newborn country in 1918, but decides to return in 1936 - at the height of Stalin’s purges, of all times.
Prokofiev practically becomes the “court composer” before finally falling from grace from the system in 1948: his music is condemned as “anti-democratic formalism” and banned from public performance for an entire year.
The composer expresses his remorse with such subservience that his behavior could almost be considered ironic.
As to why Prokofiev played along with Stalin’s game for so long, very different explanations are still given: sometimes he is judged as disinterested, opportunistic, or egocentric; the only thing beyond controversy is the quality of his music.
1891 born in Sontsovka, Russian Empire (currently Ukraine)
1895 first piano lessons
1896 first attempts at composition
1900 first opera The Giant, first recognized stage work Maddalena (1911)
1904 enrolls at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studies composition, piano, and conducting, graduates in 1914
1913 first of many international concert tours
1918 emigration via Siberia and Japan to the United States, lives in Europe starting in 1922
1936 return to the Soviet Union, this time lives in Moscow, during the Second World War in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, the same year completes two of his most popular works, Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet
1938 begins composing film music (including scores for Sergei Eisenstein)
1945 falls and suffers a concussion, subsequent health problems
1948 show trial due to “formalistic tendencies”
1953 falls again, cerebral hemorrhage, dies on March 5
Did you know?
The first work by five-year-old Prokofiev, only nine measures long, is entitled Indian Gallop
He possesses a phenomenal memory; at the age of over 50, he can still remember and write down pieces he had composed in his earliest childhood
As a young man Prokofiev writes surrealistic stories. In one of them, the Eiffel Tower falls in love and walks to Babylon
His justification for returning to his home country: for him, foreign air is not conducive to inspiration, and he needs to talk with people who could give him something back, something that he had been missing elsewhere: their (and consequently his own) songs
Prokofiev is feared as a driver; he is said to drive “his Ford through Moscow like an executioner”
Despite his reputation of being a Western dandy, he shows up at his trial in a sweatsuit and rubber boots
Prokofiev’s most famous quote: “There are still so many beautiful things that can be said in C major”