Prokofiev was born in 1891 in Sontsovka a remote rural estate in the Bakhmutsky Uyezd of the Yekaterinoslav Governorate of the Russian Empire. His father, Sergei Alexeyevich Prokofiev, was an agronomist. Prokofiev’s mother, Maria (née Zhitkova), came from a family of former serfs who had been owned by the Sheremetev family, under whose patronage serf-children were taught theatre and arts from an early age.
She was described by Reinhold Glière, Prokofiev’s first composition teacher, as “a tall woman with beautiful, clever eyes … who knew how to create an atmosphere of warmth and simplicity about her.”
After their wedding in the summer of 1877, the Prokofievs moved to a small estate in the Smolensk governorate. Eventually, Sergei Alexeyevich found employment as a soil engineer, employed by one of his former fellow-students, Dmitri Sontsov, to whose estate in the Ukrainian steppes the Prokofievs moved.
By the time of Prokofiev’s birth, Maria—having previously lost two daughters—had devoted her life to music; during her son’s early childhood, she spent two months a year in Moscow or St Petersburg taking piano lessons.
Sergei Prokofiev was inspired by hearing his mother practising the piano in the evenings, mostly works by Chopin and Beethoven, and wrote his first piano composition at the age of five, an “Indian Gallop”, which was written down by his mother: it was in the F Lydian mode (a major scale with a raised 4th scale degree), as the young Prokofiev felt “reluctance to tackle the black notes”. By seven, he had also learned to play chess.
Chess remained a passion of his, and he became acquainted with world chess champions José Raúl Capablanca, whom he beat in a simultaneous exhibition match in 1914, and Mikhail Botvinnik, with whom he played several matches in the 1930s. At age nine, he was composing his first opera, The Giant, as well as an overture and various other pieces.
In 1902, Prokofiev’s mother met Sergei Taneyev, director of the Moscow Conservatory, who initially suggested that Prokofiev should start lessons in piano and composition with Alexander Goldenweiser.
Unable to arrange that, Taneyev instead arranged for composer and pianist Reinhold Glière to spend the summer of 1902 in Sontsovka teaching Prokofiev. The first series of lessons culminated, at the 11-year-old Prokofiev’s insistence, with the budding composer making his first attempt to write a symphony.
The following summer, Glière revisited Sontsovka to give further tuition. When, decades later, Prokofiev wrote about his lessons with Glière, he gave due credit to his teacher’s sympathetic method but complained that Glière had introduced him to “square” phrase structure and conventional modulations, which he subsequently had to unlearn.
Nonetheless, equipped with the necessary theoretical tools, Prokofiev started experimenting with dissonant harmonies and unusual time signatures in a series of short piano pieces he called “ditties” (after the so-called “song form”, more accurately ternary form, on which they were based), laying the basis for his own musical style.
In 1914, Prokofiev finished his career at the Conservatory by entering the ‘battle of the pianos’, a competition open to the five best piano students for which the prize was a Schroeder grand piano; Prokofiev won by performing his own Piano Concerto No. 1.
In the summer of that year, Prokofiev composed his first symphony, the Classical. The name was Prokofiev’s own; the music is in a style that, according to Prokofiev, Joseph Haydn would have used if he were alive at the time. The music is more or less Classical in style but incorporates more modern musical elements (see Neoclassicism).
Prokofiev died at the age of 61 on 5 March 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin. He had lived near Red Square, and for three days the throngs gathered to mourn Stalin, making it impossible to hold Prokofiev’s funeral service at the headquarters of the Soviet Composers’ Union.
Because the hearse was not allowed near Prokofiev’s house, his coffin had to be moved by hand through back streets in the opposite direction of the masses of people going to visit Stalin’s body.
The leading Soviet musical periodical reported Prokofiev’s death as a brief item on page 116. (The first 115 pages were devoted to the death of Stalin.) Prokofiev’s death is usually attributed to cerebral hemorrhage. He had been chronically ill for the prior eight years.