While Prokofiev spent 11 years on this opera, the bulk of his work (ten of 13 scenes) was actually written in eight months, between late summer 1941 and early spring 1942. This effort comprised the first version, but the composer later added what are now scenes 1, 2, and 10, and a choral epigraph, placed at the beginning of part 2, between scenes 7 and 8. In addition, political pressures from Soviet cultural authorities prevailed on him to further beef up the "War" half of the opera, and to enlarge the role of Field Marshal Kutuzov, who could be seen as a counterpart to Josef Stalin. Thus, the opera grew in size, but not necessarily in quality.
There have been many recordings of War and Peace -- more than of any other Prokofiev opera -- but few containing the same version of the score. The complete opera runs four hours or more, but all but a few recordings have reduced it by a half- to full-hour or more. Prokofiev intended performances to occur over two evenings.
To summarize the story of War and Peace, even from the libretto fashioned by Prokofiev and Mira Mendelson which merely portrayed key scenes from Tolstoy's enormous novel, is a nearly impossible task. Suffice it to say, that in Prokofiev's War and Peace, the action is divided into the "Peace" and "War" segments, with the latter being the larger half. The love story between Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky is, of course, portrayed, as well as the actions of other key characters, such as Pierre Bezukhov, Anatol Kuragin, and Field Marshal Kutuzov.
There are many themes throughout the opera, as many as in Prokofiev's melody-rich Romeo and Juliet ballet (1935-1936). Several were salvaged from his unused score for the 1936 Eugene Onegin, the most important of which is introduced at the beginning of the opening scene. It is associated with the love between Natasha and Andrei, and appears throughout the opera. While there are many other important melodies in first half of the opera, the most memorable ones come in the "War" section. Several of these are introduced in the choral epigraph, the most significant of which are the last two, a glorious theme -- later blossoming into a grand chorus of victory-minded soldiers and volunteers at the end of scene 8 -- and a joyous, arch-shaped melody.
Without a doubt, the most memorable theme in the opera, however, is the one associated with victory, first sung by Kutuzov near the end of scene 10, when he agonizes over retreat. It is a warm and passionate melody that receives its most glorious incarnation at the opera's close, when it is taken up by the full chorus and orchestra. Despite the grandeur and beauty of this ending, the most touching moment and greatest vocal writing comes in scene 12, when the delirious Andrei is dying. Here the music for Andrei and Natasha brilliantly captures their desperation and love, their tragedy and sadness.