This Russian conductor, pianist, and composer of both operas and ballet is considered one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. Born on an isolated countryside estate called Sontsovka, His mother was his first influence born into a family of serfs whose children were raised on theatre and art.
After losing two other children Prokofiev’s mother focused her life on music and would travel to St. Petersburg for lessons on the piano. Listening to his mother play Chopin and Beethoven, Prokofiev was inspired to write his first composition at the age of five. By the age of nine he had already begun written the music for his first opera The Giant and an array of other musical works.
While a child Prokofiev trained at Sontsovka with Reinhold Gliére, a well-known composer and pianist at the time. When he reached the age of high school Prokofiev’s parents were hesitant about his starting a music career too soon and checked out schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg until finally deciding on the latter.
Still, when visiting the capital Prokofiev, they met Alexander Glazunov, who taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Glazunov requested to see Prokofiev’s music and was insistent he attend the Conservatory. At this time Prokofiev had already composed his next operas, Desert Islands and The Feast.
Prokofiev was such a gifted and prolific child and adult we felt it was time to dedicate a post to several of his works, some being operas and other ballets.
This piece was written by Prokofiev in 1899 and is considered his first operatic work. Already a prodigy, at this point the young composer had several piano samples written. Prokofiev was first introduced to the opera when he traveled with his parents to Moscow. While there they experienced Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin and Faust by Charles Gounod.
When they returned the young Prokofiev had an intense desire to create his own opera. He wrote the libretto, or text, and came up with three acts consisting of six scenes. His mother helped him transcribe his ideas and Prokofiev utilized a game he played with childhood friends Egorka and Stenya, whose names he used as well.
After completing the opera Prokofiev staged a performance at his uncle’s family home using family members including his aunt Tatiyana and some cousins. There is no record of this opera ever being performed afterward.
The plot is set around Ustinya, a little girl who has been abducted by a Giant. Along with the good King her friends Sereyev and Yegorov save her. Still, accounts of Prokofiev’s mother speaking on the subject she recalled that the Giant was triumphant over the good King. She is quoted as saying, “Now at the time of extremely strict monarchy, this idea was not approved of by the paternal authority, and the young composer, very much put out by this censorship, would not consent to write an ending involving a reconciliation.”
Prokofiev himself, remembered that he was very nervous when he first staged this opera and sang incorrect parts. Still, the six members of that first audience cheered and Prokofiev’s uncle told him, “When your operas are performed on the Imperial stage, remember that your first opera was staged in my house.”
This staging is reenacted in The Prodigal Son, a TV documentary about Prokofiev.
Next we introduce you to a Prokofiev ballet that was first written in 1915 and then reworked in 1921. This ballet is also known as The Tale of the Buffoon or The Buffoon. Interestingly enough, the very first title of this ballet was The Tale of the Buffoon who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons, which is even longer in Russian. Eventually it was shortened to Chout, a French romantic derivative of the Russian word meaning “buffoon.”
The importance of this ballet is that it was the first completed work for ballet that Prokofiev composed for the ballet legend Sergei Diaghilev. This wasn’t their first time working together. Before Chout, Diaghilev commissioned Prokofiev to write Ala and Lolli but wasn’t happy with the results and ultimately disregarded his submission.
Based on a mythical legend chronicled by Alexander Afanasyev and the first composer to suggest this idea to Diaghilev was Igor Stravinsky. Instead, Diaghilev took it to Prokofiev and, with the help of choreographer Léonide Massine, the three came up with the ballet Chout.
The plot revolves around seven buffoons who murder their wives because an eighth buffoon has told them he has murdered his wife. They are convinced when the eighth buffoon tells the seven that he was able to bring his wife back to life with a whip that has mystic powers. He vows that after they kill their wives he will use the whip to restore their lives. Surprisingly, or not, the eighth buffoon is unable to fulfill his promise and the other seven seek vengeance.
Originally the score was written in 1915 but Diaghilev was not pleased with the score. This time instead of rejecting him, they decided to work on making improvements. These improvements would take Prokofiev six years to complete and Chout would finally be premiered by the Ballets Russes on May 17, 1921 at the Théâtre Municipal de la Gaîté in Paris.
The original production was well received but when they went to London it failed miserably.
With four acts this opera by Prokofiev is based on a story with the same title written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. After he was guaranteed that he would be allowed to premiere this piece at the Mariinsky Theater by Albert Coates, conductor at the time, Prokofiev began composing this opera.
Taking five months to complete this work and the arrangement was finished in January of 1917 but after the February Revolution of that year The Gambler was never produced.
First we meet Alexei who serves as a tutor to a General’s family and their ward Polina. She owes the Marquis a great debt. Alexei is in love with Polina and follows her instructions to sell her jewelry and use it for gambling to win her debt. Alexei loses the money.
In the meantime, the General is in love with Blanche. Alexei admits to his gambling losses but lies and says it was his money. He gets scolded for gambling when he earns such a meager living. The General is also hoping that his grandmother will soon die so he can bequeath her money and marry Blanche.
Polina is upset because she wants to pay the Marquis her debt. She also doubts the authenticity of Alexei’s love. Polina tests Alexei’s loyalty by insisting he flirt with a German Baroness they see in the park. He does what she wishes and the Baron and Baroness leave angry.
Alexei is now responsible to give an explanation to the General. The tutor does not repent and he is fired. Now the General is concerned with avoiding a scandal and asks the Marquis for help who agrees to defend him. But Alexei is cocky and ungrateful with the Marquis. The Marquis shows Alexei a note from Polina which disparages Alexei.
Click here to watch the full performance of this stunning opera by the Mariinsky Theatre Company!
Le pas d’acier
This later ballet by Prokofiev is performed in two scenes. It was also commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, who was inspired by a demonstration on Russian artists of the modern-day. This exhibit was in Paris at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts of 1925.
Following the picture offered by Georgi Yakulov, a Constructivist artist, and Prokofiev during their tour of the States between 1925-1926. Prokofiev considered the music in this work as “contemporary” and a “move towards a Russian musical language.” Prokofiev also added that he purposely steered away from “Fairy Tales of Afanasyev.”
Prokofiev went to Diaghilev with a score titled Ursignol in the fall of 1925 but the final version was not completed for two more years. When the plot-line was altered even though the original artist, Yakulov, was opposed to the changes.
The first draft was set in Soviet Russia, the one Yakulov lived in, yet Prokofiev and Diaghilev were emigrants from the Revolution and were not familiar with this Russia. This original scene included opportunists, sailors and workers, there were sections set in a station, then a marketplace, and a plant. These were common characters and settings in the early days of the Soviet Union.
Critiques can be found on the 1927 production and they claim that the plot had been changed to add the Russian folk-lore that Prokofiev had intended to omit. The original production was choreographed by Léonide Massine for the Ballet Russes and premiered on June 7th at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris.
Despite mixed reviews this ballet was a great accomplishment for both Prokofiev and Diaghilev. After this Diaghilev never doubted Prokofiev again and called him “my second son.” It is said his “first” son was Stravinsky. Diaghilev died in 1929 and Prokofiev lost his main supplier of ballet commissions in Paris and Western Civilization.
In 1931 the ballet was given a new choreographic theme by Boris Gusan for the Bolshoi Theatre and this cast would go on to perform in the United States. The next staging of this Prokofiev ballet was by the Princeton University’s ballet in 2005.