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Musical Analysis: Sergei Prokofiev Part 2

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Impressionist. That's probably the best descriptive term for him. Prokofiev did so many things in his music that simply don't make sense if one were to look at each piece of the puzzle. One has to see the complete picture to try to understand the ideas he's trying to communicate. In this way, harmony often overrides melody because an idea doesn't always need a melody. Yet Prokofiev has a clever way of combining melody with unusual harmony sometimes.

- Not that he was exactly like Ravel, but it should be noted that he LOVED Debussy's music. It's quite ironic that Liadov had told Prokofiev when he was just a student "You want to learn how to compose? Go to Richard Strauss! Go to Debussy!" and that's exactly what he did! Prokofiev often does bass lines that hardly mean anything, just blurs of notes, but they always go somewhere, even if it means to stay in the same place (as Impressionism in music is known for). Not that he uses parallel 5ths that often... 4ths are perhaps more common, and 2nds very very common (Shostakovich uses a strict style of parallel 2nds occasionally too). But I don't think he was so opposed to strange harmonies.

- His piano music is probably where you can find his Impressionism the most effective. The way he smashes the piano with blurs of chords that hardly make any sense on their own come together to create great expressions of emotion.

- It was his rebellion against traditional harmony that inspired his Sarcasm as being a major impression. He detested IV-V progressions, but would often use ii-V to make it more interesting, and used modally borrowed chords all the time. Thus, he seems to step in and out of keys very quickly, and you can hardly tell where he's gonna end up in the end.

- The vii w/ raised 5th is as common as the Neapolitan (N) chord for him. Ex. The key is E minor, and he uses a E flat minor chord to progress to the i chord. Numerous examples of that. That's often how he uses tritones/ diminished 5ths in harmony, besides melody.

- Tritones and Diminished 5ths are extremely common in bass, especially piano. "Wrong-note" waltzes often have that, although minor 6ths in bass (modally borrowed chords) also common.

Because of all of this, Prokofiev isn't exactly French Impressionist, but a synthesis of Russian and French styles. He kept the melodic and orchestration style of the Russians, while using French harmony. It should be noted why this may have happened: Prokofiev escaped the Russian Revolution to live in France, and set up a successful business for himself there. Thus, he was acquainted with numerous French Composers, as well as Stravinsky, the greatest example of a Russian who turn 180 degrees, into a French-styled composer. But Prokofiev didn't want to do that, and in fact missed Russia while he was abroad, plus he didn't feel like he really was doing well in France (he was overshadowed)... hence, why he went back to the USSR later, and returned to the Russian style of things again.


I'm putting both of these in the same category, but they aren't actually related, they are just very short subjects. Or are they? I'll start with form.

Form: One of the ways that Prokofiev ended up having a sometimes Neoclassical tone. He loved the Sonata Allegro Form (Theme, Development, Recapitulation), and used it all the time. He himself commented that it was all he really needed to make music, as long as he had some stable form to put all his ideas into.

- Recapitulation was a common thing used in his works, notably his Piano sonatas. It took the form (haha no pun intended) of Recurring themes in his ballets, most composers of ballets do that.

-One unique thing for Prokofiev was that he could characterize people in his works, some examples are Romeo & Juliet, Cinderella, and even Peter in the Wolf. In other words, motifs that used instruments and melodies.

Tone: well, how is this all summed up? Tone is the emotion that one creates, or the attitude towards one's subject. Prokofiev was extremely clever at creating tone. Some of his favorite were Sarcasm/Humor, Joy, and Rage. They, in many ways, depict his own personality, a cleverly sarcastic man, sometimes "waspish," and yet always an optimist, highly confident in himself. So, Prokofiev wasn't so Abstract or Programmatic that he was completely turned each way (note, Glazunov was like that too). Prokofiev wrote plenty of programmatic music with abstract qualities, and abstract music with emotional or programmatic qualities. In the USSR, he used his ability of sarcasm to give a few secret blows to the government, especially in his War Sonatas (Piano sonatas 6-8), where he stretched tonality to the limit. In truth, he was very anxious, very sad, very angry at all the things that had happened to him since coming back the the USSR, and although he would like to blame the government for everything, in the end, he probably blamed himself for his mistake. Indeed, he shows a bit of despair in his latest works, where he has been completely overcome with regret, and no longer flights the regulations that the USSR put on his music. Those turn out to be very beautiful, romantic works, ex. Symphony no. 7, Cinderella, the Stone Flower. Whether he wrote those sincerely or not, I really don't know. In some ways, they probably were sincere, since they shared former characteristics, without being too dissonant.

It's quite ironic that Prokofiev was finally defeated by what he first rebelled against: Traditional Romanticism. It got the last word. Not him. His whole death was quite ironic too, he died the same day as Stalin, and never got to enjoy life after that reign of Terror. Plus, he had funeral with only recorded music and paper flowers. Very ironic! Wouldn't it have been what he loved? You know, something unusual, revolutionary? No, he was completely overshadowed, dishonored. What a Tragic Hero!
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  1. Air's Avatar
    Great analysis! I like it.

    The stuff about his use of keys I find particularly intriguing.
  2. Richannes Wrahms's Avatar
    You missed the influence of Sibelius, at least on the cello solos.