Born on April 23, 1891 in Sontsovka, Ukraine of the former Russian Empire, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is considered one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He was also an accomplished pianist and conductor. He attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1904 to 1914, winning the Anton Rubinstein prize for best student pianist when he graduated. Like other great composers he mastered a wide range of musical genres, including symphonies, concerti, film music, operas, ballets, and program pieces [ed: like his most famous work, Peter and the Wolf]. At the time, his works were considered both ultra-modern and innovative. He traveled widely, spending many years in Paris and Ettal in the Bavarian Alps, and toured the United States five times. He gained wide notoriety and his music was both reviled and triumphed by the musical press of the time. He returned to his homeland permanently in 1936. He died on March 5, 1953 in Moscow.

(short biography courtesy www.prokofiev.org)

The website listed above is a essentially a fan site that has collected everything there is to know about Prokofiev and has even gotten surviving family involved in its growth and maintainance.  Look around for anything you’d like to know about him.

Much information is also available at The Serge Prokofiev Foundation.

Prokofiev wrote the March, op. 99 in 1943-44 for a Soviet military band.  It received its premiere in the form of a radio broadcast from Moscow on April 30, 1944.  While the details of the impetus for its composition are unclear, it is possible that it was written for May Day, an important Soviet holiday.  The March made its way to the West in part thanks to Paul Yoder, who arranged it for Western instrumentation shortly after its Russian premiere.  It was first heard in the United States on May 31, 1945 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Combat Infantry Band.  Prokofiev reused substantial section of the March in the last opera he would complete, Story of a Real Man, in 1947-48.

It’s worth the trouble of listening to 2 different performances of this work.  One follows the printed tempo (quarter=134).  The other goes much faster (and proclaims itself “absolutely the best performance”), making the March into more of a galop.  See what you think:

I owe much of the information on this page to William Berz’s full score critical edition of this piece.  His description of Soviet band instrumentation is worth quoting directly, since it is so succinct and informative:

Prokofiev’s March, op. 99 was originally written for the instrumentation of the Soviet military band of the time.   As was typical for Soviet composers, the scoring for this march was split into three instrument families:

  • orchestral winds (piccolo, flute, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, two E-flat horns, two B-flat trumpets, three trombones);
  • saxhorn family (two cornets, two E-flat alto horns, three trombones in treble clef, baritone in treble clef, tuba);
  • percussion (tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals)

As you can see, it’s quite different from what we’re used to, hence the need for an arrangement very early in the piece’s existence.