Sergei Prokofiev - Writer

Composer. Nationality: Russian. Born: Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev in Sontsovka, Ukraine, 23 April 1891. Education: Studied the piano with Glière; then studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Wihtol, Tcherepnin, and Essipov until 1914. Family: Married Lina Llubera, 1923; two sons. Career:

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev
Composer as a child; important works performed in the late 1910s; 1918–27—lived in the United States and Paris; 1927—returned to the Soviet Union; composer of orchestra and stage works; 1934—first film score, for Lieutenant Kizhe. Died: In Moscow, 5 March 1953.

Films as Composer:


Poruchik Kizhe ( Lieutenant Kizhe ) (Fainzimmer)


Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein)


Lermontov (Gendelstein)


Kotovsky (Fainzimmer); Partizani v stepyakh Ukrainy ( The Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes ) (Savchenko)


Ivan Grozny ( Ivan the Terrible, Part I ) (Eisenstein)


Ivan Grozny II: Boyarskii Zagovor ( Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot ) (Eisenstein—produced 1946)


By PROKOFIEV: books—

Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences , edited by Semyon Shlifshteyn, Moscow, 1965.

Prokofiev by Prokofiev: A Composer's Memoir , London, 1979.

Soviet Diary, 1927 & Other Writings , Boston, 1992.

Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev , edited and translated by Harlow Robinson, Boston 1998.

On PROKOFIEV: books—

Nestyev, I.V., Prokofiev , New York, 1946.

Hanson, L. and E., Prokofiev , London, 1964.

Rayment, M., Prokofiev , London, 1965.

Seroff, Victor, Sergei Prokofiev , New York, 1968.

Blok, Vladimir, (ed.), Sergei Prokofiev: Materials, Articles, Interviews , Moscow, 1978.

Robinson, Harlow, Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography , New York, 1987.

Gutman, David, Prokofiev: The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers , New York, 1996.

Jaffe, Daniel, Sergey Prokofiev , New York, 1998.

On PROKOFIEV: articles—

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1953.

Soviet Film (Moscow), November 1964.

Trolle, Borge, in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), December 1966, translated in Cinema TV Digest , Fall 1967.

Trolle, Borge, in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), February 1967, translated in Cinema TV Digest , Winter 1967–68.

Eisenstein, Sergei, Soviet Film (Moscow), April 1971.

Eisenstein (correspondence), in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1973.

Gallez, Douglas W., in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1978, addenda in Autumn 1978.

Studies in Comparative Communism (Los Angeles, California), Fall-Winter 1984–85.

Film Quarterly , vol. 48, Winter 1994.

New York Times , section 2, 28 May 1995.

Séquences (Haute-Ville), March-April 1996.

Journal of Musicological Research , Winter 1999.

Opera Review , vol. 64, November 1999.

* * *

Unlike his Soviet colleague Shostakovich, Prokofiev wrote relatively little film music—only six scores, barring a couple of unrealised projects and some filmed adaptations of his stage ballets. But those six include probably the best-known film music ever written, and two of the greatest collaborations between composer and director in the history of the cinema.

In the case of Lieutenant Kizhe , the popularity of the music (or rather, of the suite the composer drew from it) has far outstripped that of the film. With good reason—anybody who searches out Alexander Fainzimmer's comedy expecting to see the wit of Prokofiev's score reflected on screen will be sadly disappointed. Where the film's humour is ponderous and overemphatic, Prokofiev's contribution—"lightly serious, or seriously light," as he described it—satirises the czarist court with playful pastiche that hints, in its melodic flow, at the world of Tchaikovsky. In his music for the "death scene" he even creates the equivalent of a cinematic montage, with brief flashbacks to earlier motifs from the life of the nonexistent lieutenant.

In Eisenstein Prokofiev met a talent to match his own. The two men developed great mutual regard. Prokofiev admired Eisenstein not only as a brilliant director, but as "a man of fine musical understanding." For his part, Eisenstein felt that in Prokofiev he and Eduard Tissé, his cinematographer, had "found the third companion in our crusade for the kind of sound cinema we had been dreaming of." In working on Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible , the composer displayed an intuitive grasp of the cinematic process. "I have always wondered," Eisenstein wrote, "how Prokofiev, knowing only the number of seconds allotted to him and having seen the rushes two or three times at most, can have the music ready on the very next day—music which corresponds unerringly and precisely in all its caesuras and accents not only with the general rhythm of the entire episode, but with all the subtlest nuances of the montage development."

For Nevsky Prokofiev rejected Eisenstein's initial suggestion of using authentic 13th-century Russian material, reasoning that this would merely seem quaint and remote to the audience. Instead, he devised a 13th-century music "not as it really sounded at the time, but as we would imagine it sounding today." Since the main action of the film concerns the clash between the Teutonic Crusaders and the Russian people, Prokofiev constructs his score around vivid tonal contrasts. For the Germans, he uses complex polytonal themes, heavy, inexorable rhythms, harsh harmonies and strident instrumentation. The Russians are given clear, folk-based diatonic melodies, exultant or poignant according to mood, and transparently scored.

Recognising the limitations of the sound equipment of the period, Prokofiev turned them to advantage. He had the horns heralding the arrival of the Crusaders blown directly into the microphone; the resulting distortion, he explained, evoked the terror the sound would have aroused among the Russian populace. The score shared in the success of the film, which was widely acclaimed. Jean Mitry hailed it as "the first masterpiece of a new art: the audio-visual art." Prokofiev later reworked his music into a cantata for concert performance.

On Ivan the Terrible composer and director worked together even more closely. Sometimes Prokofiev would provide music, in the normal way, for Eisenstein's footage; but often they reversed the order, with Eisenstein shooting material to fit passages Prokofiev had already written. Even when Prokofiev followed the standard procedure, Eisenstein noted, his music was "incredibly plastic; it never becomes mere illustration. It shows in an amazing way the inward progress of events, their dynamic structure in which emotion and the sense of what is happening take definite form."

In keeping with Eisenstein's approach, Prokofiev's music for the two parts of Ivan is less overtly dramatic than his score for Nevsky , more operatic and psychological in concept. Nevsky , with its straightforward heroic dualism, scarcely called for much in the way of character analysis, but in Ivan Prokofiev uses thematic patterns to comment on the development of character. Thus the material associated with Ivan himself gradually darkens, taking on brutal overtones from the bumptious songs of his bodyguards, the Oprichniki, as the Czar, soured by suspicion and bereavement, turns increasingly tyrannical.

The other movies on which Prokofiev worked are rarely shown outside Russia, and their music has never been available on disc. (He apparently regarded the scores as mere wartime propaganda stuff, written to order.) His reputation as a film composer rests on Lieutenant Kizhe , Alexander Nevsky , and Ivan the Terrible . But these three films would, by themselves, be enough to justify Eisenstein's description of him as "the perfect composer for the screen."

—Philip Kemp

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