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Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography by Harlow Robinson (216,000 words, 47 illustrations)

Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography traces the career of one of the most significant — and most popular — composers of the twentieth century. Using materials from previously closed archives in the USSR, from archives in Paris and London, and interviews with family members and musicians who knew and worked with Prokofiev, the biography illuminates the life and music of the prolific creator of such classics as Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, the “Classical” Symphony, the Alexander Nevsky Cantata, and the Lieutenant Kizhe Suite.

Prokofiev (1891-1953) lived a life complicated and enriched by the momentous political and social transformation of his homeland in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Born to a middle-class family in rural Ukraine, he demonstrated amazing music talent at a very early age. In 1904, he began serious musical study at St. Petersburg Conservatory. For graduation, he composed (and performed) his audacious Piano Concerto No.1, which helped to make his name as the “Bad Boy of Russian Music.” As one of the most accomplished pianists of his time, Prokofiev composed many works for the instrument which remain today an important fixture of the concert repertory.

Prokofiev fled the chaos following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution for the United States, where he lived and worked for several years, producing his comic opera
The Love for Three Oranges and his very popular Third Piano Concerto. But he found American taste too underdeveloped, and moved to Paris in 1923 where he collaborated on ballets with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (including Prodigal Son) and wrote several more operas (The Gambler, The Fiery Angel). Prokofiev also toured widely as a concert pianist, reaching nearly all major European capitals and returning several times to the United States, where his music was promoted by Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

During his Paris years, he began returning regularly on tours to the USSR, greeted with ecstatic enthusiasm. Dissatisfied with his music’s reception in Paris, and homesick for Russia, Prokofiev in 1936 made the controversial decision to move with his wife and two sons to Moscow, just as Josef Stalin’s purges were intensifying. Until 1938 he continued to tour abroad. In Moscow and Leningrad, Prokofiev worked with brilliant artists, including film director Sergei Eisenstein (for whom he wrote the scores to
Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible), pianist Sviatoslav Richter, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and ballerina Galina Ulanova (who danced the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet). But life was difficult: during World War II, Prokofiev and his second wife were evacuated to Central Asia. Even so, he managed to compose his gigantic opera War and Peace, his epic Fifth Symphony and many other seminal works of Soviet and world music. After suffering a stroke in 1945, Prokofiev’s health worsened. At the same time, his music was attacked as “formalist” by Stalin’s cultural officials in 1948, when his first wife was arrested and sent to a labor camp. Ironically, Prokofiev died on the very same day as Stalin, March 5, 1953.


“One is grateful for Harlow Robinson’s Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography... which is about as good as a musical biography gets: Robinson illuminates the artist’s character, penetrates the human significance of the music, demonstrates an easy command of Russian political and cultural history, and writes with clarity and vigor. Anyone thinking about Prokofiev is deeply in his debt.” — Algis Valiunas, The Weekly Standard

“Harlow Robinson’s biography of the composer is the fullest account to date, a thoughtful study of a puzzling personality in and out of music and a comprehensive history of the East-West cultural curtain as it constrained the life and work of the one major artist who had been active on both of its sides... The biographer is fair-minded, generous to Prokofiev but by no means an apologist... the best-written biography of a modern composer.” — Robert Craft,
The Washington Post

“An indefatigably productive composer who achieved considerable success during his lifetime, Prokofiev seldom seemed satisfied, as he restlessly sought ever-greater recognition. Mr. Robinson explores the darkest corners of this labyrinthine life and brings clarity to some of its more puzzling twists and turns... [he] skillfully relates Prokofiev’s life to greater political and cultural currents.” — Carol J. Oja,
The New York Times

“[Robinson] tells us more than anyone hitherto about the composer’s life as well as much about the origins and qualities of the music... The first full biography published in English to avoid the pitfalls of cold-war politics... [A] book of many virtues. [Robinson] gives us more facts about Prokofiev’s life than any previous biographer, and he weaves them into a story of politics, art, and romance that marvelously gathers momentum... Robinson writes with the skill of a novelist; but the story, in this instance, is true.” — George Martin,
The Opera Quarterly

“A splendid life, by a Slavic-studies specialist who is also a musician, of one of our century’s most popular composers... Mr. Robinson’s account of the musical development of his monomaniacal hero is first-rate.” —
The New Yorker

“[A] well-written, scholarly, and very detailed book...” — April FitzLyon,
The Times Literary Supplement

“Certainly, there is nothing in English to rival Robinson’s book in scope and detail...” — Richard Dyer,
The Boston Globe

“[Prokofiev] has long been in need of the full, impressively researched, congenially written study that Robinson gives us.” — Gary Schmidgall,
Opera News

“[A] fluent, readable and detailed biography of Prokofiev from the perspective of a musically informed cultural historian... Robinson has made a complicated and contradictory life accessible to the western reader... Robinson has performed the important first step of chronicling for the general reader one of the twentieth century’s major musical personalities – and his biography will stitch music into the Russian cultural scene for many professional Slavists as well.” — Caryl Emerson,
The Russian Review

“The manner in which [Stravinsky and Prokofiev] pursued their careers in tandem for a while is one of the subjects generously described by Harlow Robinson with his flair for interesting and relevant information in his absorbing new biography of Prokofiev.” — Arthur Berger,
The New York Review of Books

“More detailed and comprehensive, and less politically partisan, than previous biographies, this readable account... deals objectively but compassionately with the life and work of a major Russian composer.” —
Publishers Weekly

“This is the best biography in English to date on Prokofiev... Robinson candidly exposes Prokofiev’s flaws, from his musical capriciousness and opportunism to his unpardonable social tactlessness... Throughout, the writing is intended for the lay reader — crisp, fast-paced, and unencumbered by technical jargon. Highly recommended.” —
Library Journal