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Russian Composers Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Prokofiev Essay

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Sergei Prokofiev


Sergei Prokofiev was a Russian composer. McDonald in An Interpretation of the Composer’s Relationship with the Soviet regime writes that he took private lessons in composition in 1902 has already produced a number of pieces. In 1904, he moved to St. Petersburg and applied to the academy of music. He started his composition studies the same year. He got praise for his original compositions which he also played on the piano. He went back to study organ at the same academy. Later, he moved to the USA.

In America, his first work was a success. It was a solo concert performed in New York. This performance got him other contracts and engagements. He for instance got a contract for his new opera, The Love for Three Oranges. In 1920, he moved on to Paris where his work was even more appreciated. A number of his works were performed here. Some of the works of Prokofiev include War and Peace, Fifth Symphony, Sixth Symphony, and Romeo and Juliet among others (McDonald).

Prokofiev’s works

Prokofiev was living at a time when his mother country, Russia, was in political turmoil. He exiled himself a number of times ad was even a political prisoner in his own country at one time. Prokofiev was aware of what was going on in Russia. This he made evident in his music as McDonald writes. The political situation was reflected in his compositions. They were somewhat flippant and yet satirical in their own way. They were innocent musical lyrics on the surface but if one dared to look deeper, the political inspiration was unmistakable. Prokofiev became critical of the Soviet regime and his music contained a hint to that criticism.

At one time, after going back to his country, Prokofiev thought he could appeal to the Soviets. Romeo and Juliet were designed to accomplish this motive by winning the hearts of people who went to concerts. However, not all of his works were that political. Prokofiev’s first violin sonata may have a less controversial interpretation. This was begun in 1938 and ironically received a Stalin Prize.

Besides finishing the First Sonata, Prokofiev dedicated his time for eighteen months solely to the Sixth Symphony. This was a work of tragedy and brooding that got him intensely involved. In October 1947, it was directed by Mravinsky in Leningrad and the response was thirty long minutes of applause from the enthusiastic audience. To the present crowd, this performance spoke volumes.

The Sixth Sonata was written in 1939 just before the war broke out (Gasparov, 2005). It is therefore a work that depicts an experience of the period of Stalin’s repression. This is captured devotedly in the bitter arrogant opening theme of the initial movement. The movement is a reflection of the leitmotif of Stalin and it is repeated in the end. In the second movement, Prokofiev draws on the paradoxical march of the military. He puts a lot of disguised humor, satire, and mischief.

The finale is a creation of sarcasm. Within it, Prokofiev evokes the Stalin image by twisting and making look utterly different while at the same time depicting an intuition of approaching doom. In the end like the case of Oedipus, Prokofiev defeats Stalin with the exact power of his own image.

In self-defense, Prokofiev states ambiguously that his Sixth Sonata was an appreciation of the human spirit that was apparent in the country and in this regime. This does not fool anybody though as the intention was far from that. Prokofiev used his imagination and drew on his longing for better times to describe a painful contrast between the world that was the old Russia and what it had ultimately been turned into. The old Russia is drawn with reflective compassion while the latter is portrayed as a catastrophe of coldhearted apathy.

Romeo and Juliet finally became a success that compensated for the failure of Semyon Kotko. It was produced by Kirov in 1940. Through this, Prokofiev returned to fame. To climax it all, the Seventh Piano Sonata was also a resounding success in 1942. The period after that was untroubled. In addition to these works, the Second Violin Sonata, Fifth Symphony, Cinderella, and Ivan the Terrible made him the most popular composer in Russia at that time. His ground in the country was finally stable.

When Vano Muradeli’s opera, The Great Friendship, failed to entertain the Zhdanov, music faced his wrath. This was in February 1948 and was also partly influenced by Politburo’s anger over the poor presentation of the leading composers in the nation when the revolution was marking its 40th anniversary. Among the performances that were sloppy were Flourish, Mighty Land by Prokofiev, The Kremlin at Night by Myaskovsky, and Poem of the Motherland by Shostakovich.

It follows that Prokofiev turned traditionalist in his final works or they showed a noncommittal approach. In his Symphony-Concerto, his words are written with a lot of apprehensions. It would be as though the composer feared to be accused of using music in crime to paint mud over the country. He was possibly afraid that he would be charged with being unhappy with the country’s bright future that was apparently plunging towards doom (Mc Donald).

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Tchaikovsky was the leading composer of late-century Russia. His works included symphonic poems and symphonies among other compositions. He completed his course at St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 and began teaching at Moscow Conservatory. His compositions are related to his homosexuality. It is argued that Tchaikovsky’s The Fourth Symphony is an expression of his own life. It is said to be the reflection of the composer’s despair of his homosexuality and his ill-advised marriage (Kellerman).

Tchaikovsky left teaching in 1878 to concentrate on composition. His works include The 1812 Overture and Serenade for Strings written in 1880, The Manfred Symphony of 1885, and The Maid of Orleans (1878). He wrote Mazeppa between 1881 and 1883. His composition began being performed in the 1890s at home and abroad. He received recognition in 1881 from Tsar Alexander II. His final works include Fifth Symphony (1888), The Sleeping Beauty and The Queen of Spades (1890), The Nutcracker (1891), and The Sixth Symphony Pathetique (1893).

Tchaikovsky’s work in music and literature

Critics of the composer argue that his music is linked to his sexual orientation. They claim that some of the events of his life are reflected in the music. They also say that some elements he uses are characteristically gay elements. Tchaikovsky has in fact been very popular among gay and lesbian circles, in their culture and history (Kellerman and Cantrell, 2007).

Tchaikovsky’s compositions are basically his interpretation of Russian culture and personality especially in the reign of Alexander I (Greenleaf, 1997). The Russian element that characterizes drama and tragedy is unmistakable in his music. However, he has also borrowed from European composers even though he cannot be denied credit for brilliant innovativeness and creativity. His creativity is for instance reflected in The Fourth Symphony where he deflects from the harmonic expectations of the reader. This creates a lot of tension in the performance. Tchaikovsky evidently developed a newly crystal clear palette. He is responsible for introducing the complexity of European symphony into Russia as Carol Reynolds says. Carol adds that Tchaikovsky is the first person to successfully close the gap that existed between a chauvinist, prejudiced version of Russian music and the grand international version (Cantrell).

The popularity of Tchaikovsky’s music is great. Unfortunately, it has been judged harshly by musicians and composers. Tchaikovsky was of the belief that combining skill and his standards in his work would put him apart from his contemporaries. The composer shared in their principles. However, he had an aim to link these values to high standards that would suit the criteria of Western Europeans. His desire was to build a big audience and he eventually achieved this. He drew his influence from the patronage prevalent in the Russian community that was in turn influenced by a system of the aristocracy.

Debreczeny (1997) says that Tchaikovsky varies his melodies from Western-style to folksong styles and even folksongs. He utilizes repetition which is actually a characteristic of some Russian folksongs. These songs extend themselves by regular variations on a distinct pattern. According to Debreczeny, the repetitions also reflect on the practices of Western-style and can be extended to great lengths. They built on the emotions of the performer as well as the audience to heights that can at times be unbearably intense. His most popular tunes and practices are the waltzes among other dance tunes.

This composer wrote a majority of his music for orchestras as the Social Functions of Literature writer (Debreczeny, 1997) writes. The musical textures were therefore accustomed to the colors of the orchestra which he employed. His preference was bright and sharply distinguished coloring in a tradition that was set by Glinka and which was copied by other Russian composers since that time. He uses treble instruments mainly but also employs bass instruments occasionally. For authors, dramatists, and makers of films, Tchaikovsky is an interesting and persuasive source of inspiration and material.

Mazeppa, one of Tchaikovsky’s operas is set from ‘Poltava’ a poem by Alexander Pushkin that portrays the historical separatist of Ukraine whose name is Mazeppa in his political and romantic ventures (Greenleaf, 1997). The main character is a 70-year-old military leader who asks the Cossack judge, Kochubey, for his young daughter’s hand in marriage. His daughter’s name is Maria. When Maria runs off with Mazeppa, the judge condemns the latter’s separatist plans to Peter the Great. Peter doubts Kochubey and brings him before Mazeppa. Mazeppa tortures and executes the judge. Maria is driven mad by news of her father’s death.

It is from this poem that Tchaikovsky creates his opera. It was composed between 1881 and 1883 (Greenleaf, 1997). The narrative poem and later the opera draws from the historical events at Poltava. This is the battle where Peter the Great, a tsar, defeated Charles II, a Swedish king. Pushkin creates powerful characters through his imagination and striking zeal. Kochubey manages to keep Maria from Mazeppa. He turns Mazeppa four years after he elopes with the judge’s daughter. Tchaikovsky also sketches a duet founded on the fabric of his symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet. To Pushkin’s poem, he adds material of his own making other critical alterations along the way.

The idea of basing an opera on Poltava occurred to Tchaikovsky in 1881. His obsession with the story of Poltava of tragic love and political betrayal drove him to borrow from the poem to paint a picture of the real-life situation of Russia. Politically, a lot of people were dissatisfied with the present regime while the other side of the sword reflected apparent divisions in the social structure. Lisa and Hermann and the other characters involved in the love circle are the reflections of the social situation while the judge and tsar are the political images of Russia.

The libretto was improved over and over again even after the first performance of the opera. Tchaikovsky’s main focus was the love story that the opera revolved around. In his modifications, the composer added the character Andrei whose desperate love for Maria gives the story a twist and the tragedy that looms towards Maria an extraordinary poignancy.

Tchaikovsky also has another work in his name, Eugene Onegin. Mazeppa shares a number of personality traits with this character. The two centers on a young woman whose potent love pulls her towards a tragic fall. Eugene Onegin is a lyric opera that copies much of Pushkin’s original poem. Tchaikovsky adds dramatic music to the poem. The theme of the opera revolves around the destructive nature of the addiction to gambling. Hermann, an army officer loses his possession and his life over the desire to know the ‘secret of the three cards which the Queen of Spades knows. Hermann takes advantage of Lisa’s naivety and manipulates her. Her grandmother is the countess who is known as the Queen of Spades. The countess has let out the secret to the other two players but revealing it to a third will result in her death. However, Hermann is obsessed with the secret and has to know it by all means.

Queen of Spades is also a story by Pushkin (Greenleaf, 1997). This one was revised so that the drama would be appropriate for opera. In the opera, the love Hermann has for Lisa seems more genuine and less pretentious than in the work by Pushkin. The opera’s ultimatum is a double suicide. The opera portrays a more divisive society which the composer sketches from the Russian community. Tchaikovsky interprets the story in his own way so as to integrate it into the opera.


It would therefore seem like the two composers are inspired by what is happening around them in Russia in order to make their compositions. The more creative and original Prokofiev draws his inspiration from politics and portrays a picture of a depressed Russia whose future is plunging into doom (McDonald). On the other hand, Tchaikovsky mostly borrows from the works of Pushkin to make an interpretation of the culture and personality of Russia, leaning more on the social than the political aspect (Gasparov, 2005). Both their literature are based on music.


Cantrell, Scott, (2007). Tchaikovsky’s music rises above talk of his sex life. Dallas Morning News. 2009. Web.

Debreczeny, Paul, (1997). Social functions of literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian culture. London: Stanford University Press.

Gasparov, Boris, (2005). Five operas and a symphony: Word and music in Russian culture. London: Yale University Press.

Greenleaf, Monika, (1997). Pushkin and romantic fashion: Fragment, elegy, orient, irony. Preston: Stanford University Press.

Kellerman, Robert. “Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilich (1840-1893). 2009. Web.

McDonald, Ian. “” 2009. Web.

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