Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Opus 63

Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 63

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born either April 23, as he claimed, or April 27 (according to his birth certificate), 1891, in Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav district, Ukraine, and died March 5, 1953, in Moscow. He composed his Second Violin Concerto during the first half of 1935, with orchestration following through the summer. It was premiered December 1, 1935, in Madrid, with violinist Robert Soëtens and with Enrique Fernández Arbós conducting the Madrid Symphony Orchestra. Jascha Heifetz was soloist and Pierre Monteux conducted in the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in January 1940. In the most recent SFS performances, in June 2014, Gil Shaham was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, castanets, and strings, in addition to the solo violin. Performance time: about twenty-six minutes.

At the end of World War I, most of Europe breathed a sigh of relief, but in Russia tough times eroded into general anarchy, paving the way for the Russian Revolution. Prokofiev, who had already gained a reputation as a composer and pianist, seems not to have liked what he saw brewing. He slipped away just ahead of the Revolution, departing from Petrograd for an eighteen-day journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, and from there sailing to Japan, Honolulu, and San Francisco. He continued across the country to New York, where he arrived in September 1918. New York would be his base, more or less, for the next several years, after which he moved to Paris in 1923. That was the place to be just then if you were on the cutting edge of the arts, and Prokofiev cultivated important friendships during his decade in France. By 1932, however, he was looking longingly toward his homeland.

Soviet authorities went to considerable effort to entice him back. One of the point men on the case was Levon Atovmyan, who in 1930 had been elected to the All-Russia Society of Composers and Dramatists, heading the Composer’s Division as executive secretary. In a late-in-life memoir, Atovmyan related that, in 1932 he was advised of the government’s desire that “it would be good to correspond with those musicians abroad, namely Prokofiev, Koussevitzky, Malko, and Piatigorsky, who had taken part in [certain] concerts and, if possible, try to convince them of the merits of moving to the Soviet Union.”

Of the group, Prokofiev expressed the greatest interest. Atovmyan was authorized to dangle a private residence in Moscow as an inducement, and things developed in a positive direction. Prokofiev was given concert engagements and was guaranteed commissions from the state, beginning with a score for the 1934 film Lieutenant Kije, music that grew popular through the orchestral suite he adapted that same year. Though Prokofiev maintained his principal residence in Paris, he paid increasingly frequent visits to Russia, and in the spring of 1936 he settled in Moscow for good, his fortune cemented by the offer to serve as a “consulting professor” at the Moscow Conservatory.

He may have wondered over the years if his decision had been for the best. The Soviet music establishment was subjected to a severe purge in 1937, but Prokofiev survived unscathed thanks to the personal intervention of Stalin himself. In 1948, however, Stalin (through the mouthpiece of his cultural officials in the Central Committee of the Communist Party) reprimanded a bevy of important Soviet composers for not contributing to the Soviet program in the way he saw fit, and this time Prokofiev was not spared from the denunciation. He created a scandal—and risked very serious censure—when he turned his back on the Committee as its indictment against him was read. But when all is said and done, Prokofiev basically did cave in—what other choice did he have?—and pledged to follow the approved path of Socialist Realism. There is no question that great and important masterpieces resulted from the second half of his career, and his mature assurance of style practically guarantees compositional refinement in his later works; nonetheless, it is in his pre-Soviet oeuvre that Prokofiev-the-experimenter makes his most dependable appearances.

Prokofiev composed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1935, while he was still living in Paris but was on the verge of returning to the Soviet Union. It came into being at about the same time as his splendiferous ballet score Romeo and Juliet,which this concerto mirrors in numerous passages. In fact, sketches for material that would eventually make its way into those two works appear in the same sketchbooks, along with ideas for the Cello Concerto and Symphonic Song—preliminary work that dates back to the period of 1931-33. “Reflecting my nomadic concertizing experience,” Prokofiev wrote in his so-called Short Autobiography of 1939-41, “the concerto was written in the most diverse countries: the main subject of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the instrumentation was completed in Baku, and the premiere took place in December of 1935 in Madrid.”

He had already been amassing sketches for some vaguely imagined violin piece when he was approached by a group of admirers of the French violinist Robert Soëtens, who asked for a concerto that their friend might premiere and to which he would maintain exclusive performance rights for a year thereafter. Soëtens, a devoted champion of new music, had previously joined with Samuel Dushkin to present the premiere, in 1932, of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, and Prokofiev was warmly disposed toward providing a follow-up piece. After introducing the concerto in Spain, Prokofiev and Soëtens continued on to North Africa, in a tour that marked the first time Prokofiev had ever carried out a recital tour with another musician. That explains why he was in Fez, Morocco, when, two days after the premiere, he described the event in a letter to his close friend and musical confidant Nicolai Miaskovsky: “It gave me great pleasure, since it all sounded even better than I thought when I was orchestrating it, wilting from the heat in stuffy Baku. It seems the concerto is a success. The public reception was also excellent—the music somehow immediately reached the audience. Now I still plan to look it over again and to add a few details here and there.”

He thought of titling the piece “Concertino” or “Concert Sonata for Violin and Orchestra,” either of which would have implied something short of a full-scale concerto. By the time he finished the piece, he gave up that unnecessary complication and called it simply Violin Concerto No. 2, his Violin Concerto No. 1 having been premiered a dozen years earlier. In his Short Autobiography, Prokofiev said of the Concerto No. 2, “I wanted it to be altogether different from No. 1 in both music and style.” No doubt that reflected not just a musical goal but also a philosophical one. In 1934, while he was preparing his move back to Russia, Prokofiev wrote an article for the Russian newspaper Izvestia in which he voiced an acceptable ideology for Soviet music:

The composer must bear in mind that in the Soviet Union music is addressed to millions of people who formerly had little or no contact with music. It is this new mass audience that the modern Soviet composer must attempt to reach.

I believe the type of music needed is what one might call “light-serious” or “serious-light” music. It is by no means easy to find the right idiom for such music. It should be primarily melodious, and the melody should be clear and simple without, however, becoming repetitive or trivial. . . . The same applies to the technique of form; it, too, must be clear and simple, but not stereotyped. It is not the old simplicity that is needed, but rather a new kind of simplicity.

The Second Violin Concerto seems a shade darker than its predecessor, which is an essentially Romantic concerto marked by inherent lyricism and sparkling virtuosity. The Second Concerto is also lyrical and virtuosic, but it also is imbued with a degree of austerity, a tense underpinning that serves as a counterweight to the composer’s more songlike tendencies. The very opening typifies the ideal Prokofiev had articulated. The principal theme falls in five-beat phrases, and it is cast (deep in the violin’s range, at first unaccompanied) in a minor-key—the whole thing sounding profoundly Russian, and therefore appropriate for a proletariat trying to connect with “serious” music. This theme does service in the course of the movement, but it is eked out with the sort of music that inhabits the more tender moments of Romeo and Juliet. By the time the movement ends, listeners are likely to be captivated by the composer’s lyrical capacities. Those who know his earlier works may also be aware of the degree to which the brash acerbity of his younger years has receded. Wrote the British musicologist Gerald Abraham: “So far as the violin concerto form is concerned, Prokofieff’s [sic] formula for turning himself into a Soviet composer has been to emphasize the lyrical side of his nature at the expense of the witty and grotesque and brilliant sides.”

This is even more the case in the second movement, where the violin (playing against a delicate pizzicato accompaniment) intones a melody of remarkable finesse—elegant, to be sure, but also encompassing enough rhythmic edge to infuse excitement into its inherent grace. The lush allure borders on sentimentality; this may be as close as Prokofiev ever gets to Rachmaninoff. One could imagine great swaths of this movement being conceived as a Hollywood film score of its era. An allegretto episode midway through has a bit of a Stravinskian bite when the soloist plays edgy sixteenth notes spiccato (the bow bouncing on the string) against a march-like background from the brasses and then other winds. At places, this slow movement may come across as quite American in its idiom, evoking even Copland (if in a pastoral mood), Virgil Thomson, or other American symphonists of the 1930s; this depends very much on the interpretation, and Gil Shaham’s splendid recording of this concerto, with André Previn and the London Symphony, suggests this in an ear-opening way.

Prokofiev was a master orchestrator, and this concerto brims with extraordinary, if sometimes spare, instrumental combinations and effects. One might single out the imaginative use of the percussion section. Prokofiev calls for five percussion instruments in the score—bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, and castanets—arranged so a single player can handle all the parts, if necessary. It has been suggested that the castanets were added late in the orchestration process, just after plans changed such that the concerto would be premiered in Madrid rather than Paris; whether a passage of “Spanish rhythms” in the string parts near the end of the third movement was already in place I can’t say. The political situation in Spain was approaching a boiling point when Prokofiev completed this work, and the Spanish Civil War would officially break out in July 1936. We may imagine a commentary on this in the way the castanets, their sound unquestionably evoking Spain, add a striking but odd effect at their several appearances, sounding resolutely cheerful and somehow ominous at the same time. A particularly novel stroke of orchestration arrives at the coda that ends this third movement, where the solo violin, bounding about in wide-ranging broken-chord passages, is accompanied by just bass drum and double basses (with cellos and violas then joining in), playing pizzicato—a novel sound. In the few remaining pages Prokofiev builds up his symphonic forces with the selectivity that informs this concerto overall, and even in the final fortissimo measures he does not allow all the available instruments to sound at the same time.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Gil Shaham, with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Itzhak Perlman, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Erato)  |  Kyung-Wha Chung, with Previn conducting the London Symphony (London/Decca)  |  Patricia Kopatchinskaja, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Naïve)

Reading: Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking)  |  Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, translated and edited by Robinson (Northeastern)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, translated and edited by the composer’s son Oleg Prokofiev (Faber & Faber)