A graduate of the St Petersburg Conservatory, Prokofiev initially made his name as an iconoclastic composer-pianist, achieving notoriety with a series of ferociously dissonant and virtuosic works for his instrument, including his first two piano concertos. In 1915, Prokofiev made a decisive break from the standard composer-pianist category with his orchestral Scythian Suite, compiled from music originally composed for a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev commissioned three further ballets from Prokofiev – Chout, Le pas d'acier and The Prodigal Son – which at the time of their original production all caused a sensation among both critics and colleagues. Prokofiev's greatest interest, however, was opera, and he composed several works in that genre, including The Gambler and The Fiery Angel. Prokofiev's one operatic success during his lifetime was The Love for Three Oranges, composed for the Chicago Opera and subsequently performed over the following decade in Europe and Russia.
After the Revolution of 1917, Prokofiev left Russia with the official blessing of the Soviet minister Anatoly Lunacharsky, and resided in the United States, then Germany, then Paris, making his living as a composer, pianist and conductor. During that time, he married a Spanish singer, Carolina (Lina) Codina, with whom he had two sons. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression diminished opportunities for Prokofiev's ballets and operas to be staged in America and western Europe. Prokofiev, who regarded himself as composer foremost, resented the time taken by touring as a pianist, and increasingly turned to the Soviet Union for commissions of new music; in 1936, he finally returned to his homeland with his family. He enjoyed some success there – notably with Lieutenant Kijé, Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, and perhaps above all with Alexander Nevsky.
The Nazi invasion of the USSR spurred him to compose his most ambitious work, an operatic version of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. In 1948, Prokofiev was attacked for producing "anti-democratic formalism." Nevertheless, he enjoyed personal and artistic support from a new generation of Russian performers, notably Sviatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich: he wrote his ninth piano sonata for the former and his Symphony-Concerto for the latter.
Prokofiev was born in 1891 in Sontsovka (now Sontsivka, Pokrovsk Raion, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine), a remote rural estate in the Yekaterinoslav Governorate of the Russian Empire. His father, Sergei Alexeyevich Prokofiev, was an agronomist. Prokofiev's mother, Maria (née Zhitkova), came from a family of former serfs who had been owned by the Sheremetev family, under whose patronage serf-children were taught theatre and arts from an early age. She was described by Reinhold Glière (Prokofiev's first composition teacher) as "a tall woman with beautiful, clever eyes ... who knew how to create an atmosphere of warmth and simplicity about her." After their wedding in the summer of 1877, the Prokofievs moved to a small estate in the Smolensk governorate. Eventually, Sergei Alexeyevich found employment as a soil engineer, employed by one of his former fellow-students, Dmitri Sontsov, to whose estate in the Ukrainian steppes the Prokofievs moved.
By the time of Prokofiev's birth, Maria – having previously lost two daughters – had devoted her life to music; during her son's early childhood, she spent two months a year in Moscow or St Petersburg taking piano lessons. Sergei Prokofiev was inspired by hearing his mother practising the piano in the evenings, mostly works by Chopin and Beethoven, and wrote his first piano composition at the age of five, an "Indian Gallop", which was written down by his mother: it was in the F Lydian mode (a major scale with a raised 4th scale degree), as the young Prokofiev felt "reluctance to tackle the black notes". By seven, he had also learned to play chess. Chess would remain a passion of his, and he became acquainted with world chess champions José Raúl Capablanca, whom he beat in a simultaneous exhibition match in 1914, and Mikhail Botvinnik, with whom he played several matches in the 1930s. At the age of nine, he was composing his first opera, The Giant, as well as an overture and various other pieces.