P is for Sergei Prokofiev (and the Wolf)


Sergei Prokofiev was born in 1891 in the Ukraine region of the Russian Empire. Although he is often considered a Russian composer, he was, technically, Ukrainian.

Many people get their first taste of Prokofiev from a piece of music he was commissioned to write for children, to introduce them to the instruments of the orchestra—Peter and the Wolf. The father of two boys, Prokofiev threw himself into the assignment. It tells the story of a boy who witnesses a wolf eating a duck, but then protects the wolf from hunters. Each character in the story is represented by a motif played by a different instrument. In 2007 Suzie Templeton won the Oscar for Best Short Animated Film for her slightly disturbing stop-action version of Peter and the Wolf, featuring Prokofiev’s score. (If you’re in a hurry, the music starts at 5:45.)

Other than Peter and the Wolf, I had no exposure to Prokofiev until my Music Appreciation class, senior year in high school, when we listened to the suite from his movie score for Lt. Kije. He went on to compose music for seven more movies.

Here, Paul Rissmann tells the story of Lt. Kije along with snippets of the music:

My freshman year in college, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony (No. 1) was among two dozen pieces of music we were expected to listen to in preparation for an annual “drop the needle” exam. He composed seven symphonies in all. Here is his first:

In 1914 Prokofiev met ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, who became one of his most influential advisers and commissioned ballet music from him. He completed a total of nine ballets.

 Here’s Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet:

Prokofiev also composed 14 operas (though some remained unfinished). You may have heard the March from his Love for Three Oranges. Here it is played by Hillary Hahn and Lahav Shani:

Prokofiev was also a gifted pianist and traveled the world giving performances. He composed six piano concertos, 10 piano sonatas, and various other piano pieces. Before his death in 1953, he also composed incidental music, numerous orchestral suites and other works for orchestra, concertos for violin and for cello, vocal and choral music, chamber music, additional pieces for piano, and several marches for band. He is considered one of the leading composers of the twentieth century.

Here is Yuja Wang playing the Tocatta in d minor, Op. 11:

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