Sergei Prokofiev

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ProkofievII

This man may be Prokofiev. Then again, he may not be.


“I thought I had seen and heard everything.... that's until I met Prokofiev”
~ Oscar Wilde on Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer.[citation needed] He was notorious for having very thick lips.

Childhood

Prokofiev was born in Russia to Russian parents. In consequence, he spent much his life being very Russian, except when he was being very un-Russian in a very Russian way.

When he was six months old, he played Mozartian melodies with his right hand and bashed out (col pugno in Italian) terrible random chords with his left hand. Hence he was named an enfant terrible (thunder lizard).

Actually he was born in the Ukraine on a farm managed by his father who was a university-trained agronomist.

Young adulthood

As a young man, Prokofiev was an angry young man. At the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he found his composition classes boring, which made him angry. He responded by writing pastiches of music popular at the time. Later he wrote music that was so original that it sounded like a pastiche.

His first popular compositions were the first two piano concertos, and his first symphony ("Haydn"). This popularity made him very angry, and he thought that, if the Russians liked his music, there must be something wrong with it or them. He moved to Paris, the most un-Russian place possible, where many Russian artists were creating very Russian art.

I would not say he was an angry man. In fact, he recalled that he had a very happy childhood. He found his orchestration classes with Rimsky-Korsakov boring and he did not write pastiches while at the conservatory. He wrote very iconoclastic piano pieces that were very adventuresome.

It cannot be said that the good reception his first symphony elicited made him angry and he considered it to be an interesting exercise. It was not the "Haydn" symphony but was composed as if Haydn were writing today (circa 1913). Most Russians did not like his music and he did not move directly to Paris. He left St. Petersburg via Japan and landed in the United States where he toured and wrote The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Lyic opera company. Only later, after living in Mittal did he reside off and on in Paris.

I hate Russia!

Despite his best efforts, people still enjoyed his music, which made him furious. He wrote a horrible opera about an angel that burned to death ("The Fiery Angel"), which was generally disliked, and Prokofiev realised he was onto something. Then he wrote a really terrible symphony (Symphony No. 2 "Accident in Buzzsaw Factory"), but this turned out to be very popular, and he realised he'd lost it again.

He was not furious that people did not like his music. He was, however, furious that America, with its conservative musical tastes would not try to listen to his music.

It took many years for The Fiery Angel to even be performed so it took quite awhile before it became disliked.

Prokovfiev would agree with you about your assessment of his Second Symphony. As he left the hall he said that even he could not understand it. Noelle Mann, the noted scolar on Prokofiev, noted this work, plus his ballet "Trapeze", indicated to Prokofiev himself that he had somewhat lost his way or voice and needed to return to his roots.

The Second Symphony has never been popular and is rarely performed. In his later life Prokofiev considered revising it but never was able to.

I love men!

In a rage he decamped to the United States of America (at this time, decamping was still popular among heterosexual men), and tried to infuriate the locals by writing his Overture on Hebrew Themes ("Ouverture vers Juif Dégoûtant") and an opera about fruit ("Convoitise pour Ménage à Trois avec Trois Oranges"). Despite his constant innuendo, he suffered no anti-Semitism or homophobia because his titles were in an unreadable dead language. He thought that surely something as effeminate as a ballet of Romeo & Juliet would get some sort of reaction. He was wrong.

The titles to Prokofiev music at this time were not in a dead language. There is nothing effeminate about Romeo & Juliet. The Overture on Hebrew Themes was written at the request of a touring string ensemble that wanted to raise funds to create a music school in the then Palestian protectorate that would eventually become Israel. The overture was premiered in New York City, which has a large Jewish population, so he did not write it to "infuriate the locals".

I like Stalin!

By this time Russia was in a terrible state, as many of its citizens were increasingly unhappy at being starved or killed by the Social Democrats. Seeing his time had come, Prokofiev returned to Russia, spleen venting all the way. The new conditions were very much to his liking, as now, no matter what he composed, he could be sure it would either be hated by audiences, or else it would make Stalin want to kill him.

But by now Prokofiev had mellowed with age, and thought it was time to show his sensitive side. In this vein he wrote his nostalgic "Winter Bonfire" suite, the educational children's piece "Peter and the Wolf", and his most popular work, "Hail to Stalin".

Around this time he also wrote music for a number of long, scratchy, practically unwatchable Russian films, including "Alexander Nevsky", "Ivan the Terrible", and "How Greased was my Tractor".

Your chronology is very strange. Russia had been in a terrible state since the late 1890s and only became worse during its Civil War period and the massage economic reforms forced upon the population.

Prokofiev did not return to Russia with his "spleen venting all the way" but was warmly welcomed back with the promise that he could write much music. Also, he did not return completely to Russia, starting in 1927, but returned off and on and did not establish a total residence until 1938.

As the years wore on his position within Soviet musical circles became tenuous, as it did for any artist of an independent nature.

Regarding your chronology, Peter and the Wolf came way before Winter Bonfire, and his most popular work has not been Hail to Stalin. In his own lifetime it was never performed.

Prokofiev did not write music for "How Greased was my Tractor" or any other agiprop type of music. His other very important film score was for Lt. Kije which turned into a very popular suite.

Waaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrgh

A series of heart attacks put Prokofiev into a despond, but he was cheered up by the opening of hostilities with Nazi Germany, which he celebrated by turning Russia's longest novel, "War and Peace", into Russia's longest opera, "War and Peace". He was surprised and a little annoyed when Stalin complained about the word "peace" in the title. Actually, he thought Stalin was onto something, but, thinking practically, he realized that putting on a long, horrible opera called "War" during a long horrible war might cause some confusion, and some concert goers might accidentally go to the actual war and have a comparatively good time.

Prokofiev's upbeat mood was cut short when the premiere of his 5th Symphony ("Popular") received rave reviews, which caused him to fall over and hurt his head. He continued composing, but his style had changed: it was now slightly slower. He was somewhat cheered by the arrest and exile of his wife, but this did not last, and in despair he wrote his most enjoyable symphony since his first, Symphony No. 7 ("Haydn").

Prokofiev never had a heart attack. He experience dizzy spells in Alma-Ata ion 1943 and a cerebral hemorrage in 1945 shortly after his 5th syphony was debuted.

Stalin never commented on the opera War and Peace. In fact, the opera which was begun in 1941, received musch initial encouragement from the Bolshoi Opera which was to perform it. The opera itself, in its War second part, as in the Tolstoy novel, is a tribute to the inherent strength of the Russian people when under duress. In this regard, the opera was looked upon with favor and very appropriate for the times.

Regarding Prokofiev's style change, it had begun changing in the late 1920s when he wrote of trying to achieve a "new simplicity". This "simplicity" did not mean the music become slower, but more accessible while still being profound.

The arrest and exile of his wife Lena did not cheer him but he had also had had a very fractious life with her and had already taken up a relationship with Myra Mendelsohnn in 1941, well before Lina's arrest.

It is debateable whether his 7th symphony is "his most enjoyable". It certainly is his simplist symphony after this Symphony No. 1 as you stated. To Prokofiev, however, he even asked its first conductor Mravinsky, "Is it too simple?" although he didicated the work to children and it was premiered on the Soviet Union's Children's radio network.

Death

Around this time, the unpopular dictator Stalin died. Prokofiev, in a fit of jealousy, died too, but the reviews were poor. He would have been thrilled.

Works

  • Nine piano sonatas
  • Five piano concertos
  • Two violin concertos
  • Many songs and song cycles
  • Two violin/flute sonatas

Operas

Magdalenna

  • Case Report on the Reproduction Mechanisms of Three Oranges
  • Angel Burning to Death

Semyon Kotko The Betrothal in a Monestary

  • Whore and Piss

The Story of a Real Man

  • War and Peace (epic, forty-seven-act opera plagiarized from Leo Tolstoy, which Prokofiev was too lazy to come up with a different, less suspicious name for)

Ballets

Ala and Loli Chout Trapeze The Steel Step

  • The Son who is 'confused' and has to run away

On the Dneiper

  • Romeo (who is waiting to meet the right girl) and Juliet
  • Cinderella, and Her Sisters Who Are All Actually Men in Drag

The Stone Flower

Orchestral

  • Shitty Suit for huge orchestra
  • Scythian Suite - Orchestral hallucinations after angrily fainting during a performance of "The Rite Of Spring"
  • Lieutenant Kije - Yet another god-awful suite
  • Symphony No. 1 in Hadyn Major "Pastiche"
  • Symphony No. 2 "The Symphony which can actually kill people"
  • Symphony Nos. 3-6 in God Knows What Key "All pretty much the same"
  • Symphony No. 7 "Symphony No. 1"
  • Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (written for famed cellist and schizophrenic Mstislavinovinoffovich Rostropovichyfrance)

Others

  • Peter and the Wolf - Instructional piece about tormenting protected wildlife
  • Lt. Kije - lived in Fiji before Stalin flew him back and shipped him as a birthday gift to the ailing Hitler
  • Ivan the Terrible

Toccata op.11 (What Happened After The First Drinking Game Last Night?)

This deserves a category of its own. Prokofiev was an angry, angry man when he lost his chess matches, and this is an angry, angry piece reflecting that. Well, not so much angry as just ridiculously tempestuous and D-minorish and ridiculously hard to play for pianists unless they are Asian, Asian or Prokofiev. In any case, this piece is great to hear when the pianist is drunk. Try it out sometime, you'll be much less angry in the future. Prokofiev will suck out your soul through the pages.

The Prokofiev Society

Members include: Cinderella, Romeo, Juliet, Peter, a wolf, and a prodigal son.

Drunk Russian Composers
Modest Mussorgsky | Sergei Prokofiev | Sergei Rachmaninoff | Dmitri Shostakovich | Igor Stravinsky | Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Horrible Modern Composers
Igor Stravinsky | Paul Hindemith | Sergei Prokofiev | Anton Webern | Arnold Schoenberg | Béla Bartók | John Cage | Charles Ives | Philip Glass | Steve Reich
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