ON HEARING the name of the great 20th-century composer Prokofiev, which musical theme does it summon? The angular strings of the opening to his ballet Romeo and Juliet - a perennial favourite of ballet companies and orchestras alike, as well as Sunderland FC fans and owners of The Smiths’ Rank album? Or his colourful Peter and the Wolf, source of many a child’s first acquaintance with the bassoon? Maybe you think of the world-famous Lieutenant Kijé Suite or his opera The Love for Three Oranges.
Yet, after that, many people would struggle. Although his name may rank alongside Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein in the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? category of 20th-century music, much of his work is little known and rarely performed. Prokofiev is, indeed, a musical paradox : one of the most loved, yet one of the least known composers of the last century.
Part of the problem, says Prokofiev’s Paris-based grandson, Serge Prokofiev, relates to the "many errors musicologists and historians have made on the important dates and events of his life".
Nonetheless, this much we know. Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born in 1891, in Sontsovka, Ukraine, of the former Russian empire. He was an accomplished pianist and conductor, whose talent flourished early: he attended the St Petersburg Consevatoire from the age of 13. While there, he earned the nickname ‘enfant terrible’ on account of his arrogance and innovation.
In 1914, when the First World War broke out, the composer set off for London and Paris. He maintained a nomadic existence in America and Europe for a further 18 years, returning to Russia in the 1930s, during the clutches of the Great Terror. He died in 1953, having mastered a phenomenal range of musical genres, including concertos, film music, operas, ballets and programme pieces.
Of all these genres, it would seem his symphonies have suffered the most neglect. True, the first and fifth are regular guests to the concert repertoire, but beyond that, the path is fallow. Happily, the concert-goers of Scotland will soon have the opportunity to assess these works themselves. Next month, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra embarks upon a six-month examination of the seven works, under the expertise of maestro Alexander Lazarev. This follows on from the orchestra’s hugely successful investigation of Shostakovich symphonies, and also marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death - a time indeed ripe for re-evaluation.
"They are not only going to discover the growth and the path of a man, but also his life," says Nolle Mann, from the Serge Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths College, University of London. "There are other composers of his time who are quite repetitive in their language, vocabulary and texture, whereas Prokofiev always has you on the edge of your seat. You never quite know where he’s going to take you."
In fact, the journey commences on familiar territory. Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1, or Classical Symphony, is a genial and light affair, whose subtitles are self-explanatory. "For Prokofiev, his first symphony is simply a conservatoire exercise, written in the classical style of Haydn," says Mann. "It wasn’t important to him. He even refers to it as his ‘petite symphonie.’"
The real getting to know you starts with Symphony No 2. Written in 1924, the symphony was panned by the critics of the day for being "vulgar and aggressive".
"It’s very turbulent music," concedes RSNO leader Edwin Paling. "It’s not like the first or the seventh, which are full of beautiful flowing melodies. It’s very aggressive, angular music. It’s like listening to a machine driving along."
"This is Prokofiev standing against what was happening around him," adds Mann. "Everyone around him was telling him to forget his thick textures and emulate the clearer sound of France. But he produced something hugely chromatic in a different, unusual form and a lot of people were lost. He was a very free-standing, anti-school person. But he paid the price for this because people couldn’t compartmentalise him."
Nonetheless, the enfant terrible was affected deeply by the criticism, writing in his memoirs: "This is perhaps the first time it appeared to me that I might be destined to be a second-rate composer."
The controversy and criticism continue with the third and fourth symphonies. Two years before he wrote Symphony No 2, Prokofiev had sweated over his opera The Fiery Angel. Based on a mystical novel, the opera languished in various forms, but was never performed during Prokofiev’s lifetime. In 1928, the great conductor and lifelong Prokofiev advocate, Serge Koussevitzky, conducted some of the orchestral parts of this neglected opera, which prompted Prokofiev to write a symphonic suite from the opera. This gradually metamorphosed into a full-blown symphony - No 3.
"To write something from a dramatic genre and then fit it to the demands of symphonic treatment was difficult for him," says Mann. "He suffered with it." Still, it drew a better critical response than the second symphony and Prokofiev commented that he had succeeded in deepening his "musical language".
Yet it was this borrowing of material from other genres that led Prokofiev into hot water with his fourth symphony. This time, the source was his earlier ballet The Prodigal Son, but such was the likeness between the two that the critics complained. Prokofiev later justified his actions by recalling how Beethoven borrowed from his ballet Creatures of Prometheus for his Symphony No 3, yet critical dissatisfaction has dogged the piece ever since.
"The problem is that people still don’t look at the work and try to assess its worth as a symphony," says Mann. "This is why it is important to perform the piece. Here is a chance to change this culture and for audiences to have an impact. Either they respond to it as a symphony or not."
Prokofiev’s Symphony No 5, written in 1944, is an important work for many reasons. Prokofiev conceived it "as a symphony of the greatness of human spirit"; a triumph of victory over adversity at the end of the Second World War.
"Here you can see the contrast between him and Shostakovich," says Mann. "Where Shostakovich is gloomy, Prokofiev is positive. He sees war as something to be won, an illustration of the greatness of man." It is also unusual for Prokofiev to reflect on external events in his music - the fluffiness of the Classical Symphony, for example, came in 1917, the tumultuous year of the Russian Revolution.
By Symphony No 6, however, Prokofiev had exchanged his flirtation with contemporary events for a new introspection. Written following a stroke, it is described as his masterpiece in terms of symphonies by Mann, who suggests that "it is probably Prokofiev at his most fulfilled".
For Paling, however, Symphony No 7 is his personal favourite. "It’s just full of really beautiful melodic line," he enthuses. "If you’re a violinist, it’s fearfully difficult to play, yet very rewarding."
Despite being written in the midst of Stalin’s denouncements, censorship and intimidation of artists, the symphony is surprisingly playful - and for some critics, too simple to warrant importance.
"It was his way of turning back to youth," says Mann, who believes that Prokofiev’s decision to deposit his archives in a state library indicates the composer knew his life was nearing its end. "I think he knew he was about to die. He was searching for the company of youth, and thinking about the importance of writing music for children."
The premire of Prokofiev’s Symphony No 7 marked his last appearance in public. Ironically, given the hardship he had suffered under him, the composer died on the same day as Stalin. Only 40 people were allowed to attend his state funeral. But would he really have minded this?
"Prokofiev had only one great desire in life," says Mann. "To write music and have his work performed. Everything else was irrelevant. He was a man haunted by his needs and creative ideas."
The RSNO Prokofiev season starts on November 28 at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (0141-353 8000) and November 29 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (0131-228 1155)