Sergei Prokofiev began as a precocious prankster, developed into a fiery young modernist, and finally became a deeper, more emotional barometer of the artistic upheavals of Soviet Russia. He was one of the 20th century's most inventive figures, whose belief in new and original melody was no hollow manifesto, leading him to produce great and enduring themes time and again.
As a child, Prokofiev wrote short piano pieces for the birthdays and name days of his family. When he joined the St Petersburg Conservatoire, aged just 13, these miniatures morphed into his first published pieces. His first opera was composed when he was only 10. Seventeen years later another opera marked his maturity. The Gambler was based on Dostoyevsky's febrile novella and is musically indebted to Mussorgsky. At around the same time, Prokofiev was exploring ballet, his first attempt being a primitivist ballet called Ala and Lolly, that was too close to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring for comfort. Undaunted, Prokofiev recycled it for the concert hall as the Scythian Suite, and in Russia it won him both scandal and success.
Prokofiev was a pianist of undisputed talent as well, and again he used his abilities to shock. His First Piano Concerto was derided by conservative critics as "footballish". His second was of mammoth proportions and included a first-movement cadenza of such colossal difficulty that for decades only he and a few other pianists could actually play it. He was hardly known outside Russia and his limited success ended abruptly with the 1917 Revolution. Despite the political turmoil, Prokofiev managed to complete the "Classical" Symphony and First Violin Concerto and in the spring of 1918, he left for America via Japan. From 1923 until 1936, he lived in Paris, and although he had originally planned to be away for just a short time, he did not revisit his homeland until 1927.
By the early 1930s, opportunities in the West were drying up and his rapprochement with his homeland began. Prokofiev was beginning to feel a more melodic, direct style would work well in the new Russia. He would spend half the year touring as a pianist and conductor in western Europe and Russia, and the other half taking advantage of state-sponsored compositional refuges in the Soviet Union; Romeo and Juliet was drafted and orchestrated in the summer of 1935 on the country retreat of the Bolshoi Theatre. The Soviet Union gave Prokofiev generous time to compose, and he finally committed to the country in 1936. He moved his wife and two sons to Moscow and imagined that life would go on as it had before. But he had misread Stalin's desire to bring the arts under state control.
The tensions of life under Stalin took their toll on Prokofiev's physical and mental health. In 1945, he suffered an aneurism which left him unable to work for long stretches throughout the rest of his life. The new depth and darkness to his best works of this time are heard in his First Violin Sonata, the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas, and the opera War and Peace. In his very last years, he was hounded by show trials for deviating from the party line in music. He died on the same day as Stalin, 5 March 1953, leaving a vast and sometimes perplexing musical legacy.