What made Prokofiev great?
Great composers have a truly original and recognisable voice. They add something new to what has come before. There is no doubt that Prokofiev expanded the boundaries in modern tonal music. He was a composer who bent the rules rather than breaking them. His talent for composing was on a Mozartian level of inventiveness. He came up with brilliant original ideas. His natural talent is perhaps unrivalled by anyone in the 20th century apart from George Gershwin.
Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok are the other towering figures, all three perhaps more intellectual in their approach. Stravinsky sought to reinvent past forms with his neoclassicism, Bartok used modes derived from folk music and proportions derived mathematically. Prokofiev’s music is more instinctive and therefore harder to analyse in an academic way. I think this is also why he is not considered as important by academia as the three composers above. It is hard to rationalize natural talent that no amount of studying can achieve.
Prokofiev’s ear was far ahead of many audiences of the day and a hundred years later much of his music still sounds modern. He challenges the listener to accept his world and to keep up with his quick harmonic changes.
Here are five ways in which I believe Prokofiev was outstanding:
- Harmonic substitutions for predictable functional harmonies – which create new feelings and sensations.
- Ingenious and often heart-tugging harmonic modulations to remote keys and his cunning ability to find a convincing way back to the original key. This leads on from composers such as Schubert and Strauss. Prokofiev used instinct rather than set formulas.
- A gift for inventing original and memorable melodies, often with unusual intervals and harmonies, often growing out of original modulations.
- Reinventing piano writing, moving away from the romantic left hand arpeggio technique towards a drier rhythmic style. This was a big influence on other 20th century composers.
- A Mozart-like power of invention. Thinking of new and original ideas, especially in piano music.