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Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography by Harlow Robinson (XXX,000 words, YY 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.