Born on 23-April-1891 (11-April-1891 old style) in Sontsovka, Ukraine, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is considered one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
His father Sergei Alexeyevich Prokofiev was an agricultural engineer, and his mother Maria Grigoryevna Prokofieva (born Zhitkova) was a well-educated woman with a keen musical sense and piano skills to match. His mother became the highly gifted child's first mentor in music and arranged trips to the opera in Moscow. A high evaluation was put upon the boy's talent by a Moscow composer and teacher, Sergey Taneyev, on whose recommendation the Russian composer Reinhold Glier twice went to Sontsovka in the summer months to become young Sergey's first teacher in theory and composition and to prepare him for entrance into the conservatory at St. Petersburg. The years Prokofiev spent there--1904 to 1914--were a period of swift creative growth. His teachers were struck by the originality of his musical thinking. When he graduated he was awarded the Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano for a brilliant performance of his own first large-scale work--the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Flat Major, Opus 10.
The conservatory gave Prokofiev a firm foundation in the academic fundamentals of music, but he avidly sought musical innovation. His enthusiasms were supported by progressive circles advocating musical renewal. Prokofiev's first public appearance as a pianist took place before such a group in St. Petersburg in 1908. A little later he met with friendly sympathy in a similar circle in Moscow, which helped him make his first appearances as a composer, at the Moscow summer symphony seasons of 1911 and 1912.
Prokofiev's talent developed rapidly as he applied many new musical ideas. He studied the compositions of Igor Stravinsky, particularly the early ballets, but maintained a critical attitude toward his countryman's brilliant innovations. Contacts with the then new currents in theatre, poetry, and painting also played an important role in Prokofiev's development. He was attracted by the work of modernist Russian poets; by the painting of the Russian followers of Cйzanne and Picasso; and by the theatrical ideas of Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose experimental productions were directed against an obsolescent naturalism. In 1914 Prokofiev became acquainted with the great ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev, who became one of his most influential advisers for the next decade and a half.
After the death of his father in 1910, Prokofiev lived under more straitened material conditions, though his mother provided for his continuing studies. On the eve of World War I, he visited London and Paris to acquaint himself with the newest in art. The tense pre-storm atmosphere that pervaded Russia sharpened in him a feeling of skepticism, of disbelief in romantic ideals, but did not shake his essentially healthy outlook on life. Exempt from war mobilization as the only son of a widow, Prokofiev continued to perfect his musicianship on the organ and appeared in concerts in the capital and elsewhere. The pre-Revolutionary period of Prokofiev's work was marked by intense exploration. The harmonic thought and design of his work grew more and more complicated. Prokofiev wrote the ballet Ala and Lolli (1914), on themes of ancient Slav mythology, for Diaghilev, who rejected it. Thereupon, Prokofiev reworked the music into the Scythian Suite, Opus 20, for orchestra. Its premiere in 1916 caused a scandal but was the culmination of his career in Petrograd. The ballet The Tale of the Buffoon Who Outjested Seven Buffoons (1915; The Buffoon, 1915-20), also commissioned by Diaghilev, was based on a folktale; it served as a stimulus for Prokofiev's searching experiments in the renewal of Russian music.
The next decade and a half are commonly called the foreign period of Prokofiev's work. For a number of reasons, chiefly the continued blockade of the Soviet Union, he could not return at once to his homeland. Nevertheless, he did not lose touch with Russia. The first five years of Prokofiev's life abroad are usually characterized as the "years of wandering." On the way from Vladivostok to San Francisco, in the summer of 1918, he gave several concerts in Tokyo and Yokohama. In New York City the sensational piano recitals of the "Bolshevik Pianist" evoked both delight and denunciation. The composer had entrйe to the Chicago Opera Association, where he was given a commission for a comic opera. The conductor and the producer of the opera, both Italian, gladly backed the idea of an opera on the Gozzi plot. Accordingly, The Love for Three Oranges was completed in 1919, though it was not produced until 1921. Within a few years the opera was also produced with immense success on the stages of the Soviet Union as well as in western Europe.
In America, Prokofiev met a young singer of Spanish extraction, Lina Llubera, who eventually became his first wife and the mother of two of his sons, Svyatoslav and Oleg. From the first days of the war, the composer's attention was centred on a very large-scale operatic project: an opera based on Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace. He was fascinated by the parallels between 1812, when Russia crushed Napoleon's invasion, and the then-current situation. The first version of the opera was completed by the summer of 1942, but subsequently the work was fundamentally revised, a task that occupied more than 10 years of intensive work. Those who heard it were struck both by the immense scale of the opera (13 scenes, more than 60 characters) and by its unique blend of epic narrative with lyrical scenes depicting the personal destinies of the major characters. An increasing predilection for national-epical imagery is manifested in the heroic majesty of the Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major (1944) and in the music (composed 1942-45) for Eisenstein's two-part film Ivan the Terrible (Part I, 1944; Part II, 1948). Living in the Caucasus, in central Asia, and in the Urals, the composer was everywhere interested in the folklore, an interest that was reflected in the String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, on Kabardinian and Balkarian themes (1941), and in the comic opera Khan Buzai, on themes of Kazakh folktales. Documents of those troubled days are three piano sonatas, No. 6 (1940), No. 7 (1942), and No. 8 (1944), which are striking in the dramatic conflict of their images and in their irrepressible dynamism.
Overwork was fatal to the composer's health. During the last years of his life, Prokofiev seldom left his villa in a suburb of Moscow. His propensity for innovation, however, is still evident in such important works as the Symphony No. 6 in E Flat Minor (1945-47), which is laden with reminiscence of the tragedies of the war just past; the Sinfonia Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E Minor (1950-52), composed with consultation from the conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; and the Violin Sonata in F Minor (1938-46), dedicated to the violinist David Oistrakh, which is in Russian folk imagery. Just as in earlier years, the composer devoted the greatest part of his energy to musical theatre: cases in point were the opera The Story of a Real Man (1947-48), the ballet The Stone Flower (1948-50), and the oratorio On Guard for Peace (1950). The lyrical Symphony No. 7 in C Sharp Minor (1951-52) was the composer's swan song.
In 1953 Prokofiev died suddenly of cerebral hemorrhage. On his worktable there remained a pile of unfinished compositions, including sketches for a 6th concerto for two pianos, a 10th and an 11th piano sonata, a Kazakh comic opera, and a solo violoncello sonata. The subsequent years saw a rapid growth of his popularity in the Soviet Union and abroad. In 1957 he was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union's highest honour, the Lenin Prize, for the Seventh Symphony.