Sergei Prokofiev: A Genius of Tough Times

Sergei Prokofiev: A Genius of Tough Times

A composer who became a classic and recognized world genius during his lifetime. An author of theater, opera and ballet music. His Romeo and Juliet still remains the main translation of Shakespeare's tragedy into the language of classical dance.

A five-year-old child prodigy

Sergei Prokofiev was born in 1891 in the Ekaterinoslav province of the Russian Empire (now, the Donetsk region of Ukraine). Little Seryozha composed his first play at the age of five. His mother, Maria Grigorievna, who was his first teacher and guide to the world of music, helped notate it.

At the age of 13, Sergei Prokofiev entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, having written many pieces of music by that time. Experienced teachers recognized him as a genius already during his studies.

In 1908, 17-year-old Prokofiev made his first public appearance as a composer and pianist; in 1915, he debuted abroad. The performance was organized by Sergei Diaghilev, with whom the composer had a long-term collaboration later. 

“There, cultivated life”

Prokofiev didn’t accept the revolution. At the end of 1917, he made the following entry in his diary: 

“To go to America! Of course! Here was wretchedness; there life brimming over. Here, slaughter and barbaric rhetoric; there, cultivated life. Here, shabby concerts in Kislovodsk; there, New York, Chicago!” There is no hesitation. I go in spring.”

In May 1918, Sergei Prokofiev left the country of the Soviets and traveled through Tokyo to America. Then the composer moved from New York to Paris, continued to collaborate with Diaghilev, successfully toured Europe, the USA, and even performed in the USSR three times. 

Honorable return

In 1936, Prokofiev, together with his wife - the Spanish singer Lina Codina - and their two sons, finally returned home to the USSR, where a large apartment, a personal car, recognition and honor, as well as the highest state awards awaited him.

In the same year, the composer finished the score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, on which he had been working since 1933. The fate of this work turned out to be difficult. 

Tough times for innovation

According to Prokofiev's plan, Shakespeare's tragedy was supposed to have a happy ending. But this version never saw the light of day, as it was considered too controversial. Under pressure from higher authorities, the composer had to make the finale traditional - that is tragic.

But even in this form, the Soviet audience was denied the opportunity to see the ballet right away. Romeo and Juliet to the music by Prokofiev premiered in 1938 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and was a great success. People literally stormed the box office to get a chance to see this performance.

In the USSR, the production was canceled and postponed several times. One of the libretto authors - Adrian Piotrovsky, a playwright and literary critic - was shot. They had to redo a lot of documents. 

For never was a story of more woe

Nowadays, Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet is a world culture classic, but in the first half of the 20th century, his music was considered too innovative, "non-ballet". The work was going on hard. Leonid Lavrovsky repeatedly insisted on changing the score, Sergei Prokofiev didn’t agree for a long time but nevertheless made corrections.

Musicians and ballet dancers resisted refusing to perform the parts. The amazingly beautiful music seemed too complicated and unusual for ballet.

They say that it was Galina Ulanova, the first Soviet Juliet, who authored the phrase that went viral immediately: 

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Prokofiev’s music in ballet.”

But it was this role that became one of the brightest and most stellar ones in the ballerina's career. 

Worldwide success

Despite all the difficulties, on January 11, 1940, the ballet Romeo and Juliet staged by Leonid Lavrovsky premiered at the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theater. The performance was an enormous success and was awarded the Stalin Prize. 

At the Bolshoi Theater, Romeo and Juliet was given for the first time only after the war, in 1946, with Galina Ulanova dancing Juliet again. She also showed the heroine of Shakespeare's tragedy to the English audience during the famous triumphal tour of the Bolshoi Theater in London in 1956.

Until now, Romeo and Juliet to the music by Sergei Prokofiev remains one of the brightest interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragedy, a ballet difficult to stage but loved by the public. It is being staged or eagerly awaited in all theaters in the world. And Sergei Prokofiev remains one of the most performed composers in the 21st century.