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The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19

About the Work

Sergei Prokofiev Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
© Peter Laki

When a pianist-composer writes a violin concerto, we must expect something unusual.  After all, the composer is putting his or her own instrument aside to explore the ?other":  whether the goal is to oblige an esteemed colleague, to fulfill a commission, or simply to try something new, the challenge to conquer a ?foreign" medium often propels a composer's stylistic evolution in surprising new directions.

When Prokofiev first sketched the romantic violin melody that would open the concerto, he was 24 years old and probably didn't realize that the ?ultra-left idiom" of the first two piano concertos, the Scythian Suite and the piano piece Sarcasms was about to be modified with a series of new compositions showing a ?softening of temper."  (The words in quotation marks are Prokofiev's own.)  The Classical Symphony, on which he worked more or less simultaneously with the violin concerto, would soon confirm this tendency.

The violin's propensity to play beautiful lyrical melodies put Prokofiev in a ?romantic" mood we don't often hear in the above-mentioned works, which project more of a ?daredevil" image.  Not that the violin concerto lacks virtuosic brilliance.  Quite on the contrary, it contains an almost complete catalog of effects (harmonics, double and triple stops, etc.) that demand the utmost of the soloist.  Yet one always feels that Prokofiev wanted to delight his listeners rather than stun them, even though he occasionally teased his audience with unmistakable manifestations of his enfant terrible personality.

Since August 1914, Russia had been embroiled in World War I, but Prokofiev did not let that fact get in the way of his feverish compositional activity.  He and his mother retreated to a small village in the Caucasus, where he became involved in a secret romance with a girl named Nina Meshcherskaya.  Her wealthy family, however, refused to have anything to do with a young Bohemian artist like Prokofiev, and the relationship was forcibly broken off.  The romantic melody that opens the Violin Concerto was first written down during those months.

Despite the war, Prokofiev managed a trip to Italy in 1915 at the invitation of Sergei Diaghilev, the legendary impresario who had begun to promote Prokofiev's music.  After an adventurous return to Russia, he wrote his ballet The Buffoon for Diaghilev and his opera The Gambler for the Mariinsky Theater (which did not perform it).  He did not have a chance to return to the Violin Concerto until 1917, just after the February revolution put an end to czarist rule in Russia.  Determined to be as far removed from the fighting as possible, Prokofiev took a long steamboat trip along the Volga and Kama rivers, venturing into distant tributaries near the Ural mountains.  It was on the boat that he wrote and orchestrated most of the concerto.

Prokofiev initially wanted to write only a short ?concertino" (presumably in one movement) on the theme jotted down in the Caucasus.  In the end, he expanded the original concept to a full-fledged concerto, but the opening melody still plays a central role, figuring prominently both at the beginning and at the end of the work.  It opens the first movement in a dreamlike fashion (Prokofiev instructs his soloist to play sognando, ?as if in a dream"), with the solo violin over soft tremolos (fast repeated notes) in the violas.  At the end of the movement, this theme will return in a shimmering orchestration, with the melody taken over by the flute, and the solo violin and the harp adding their magical filigrees.  In between comes an extended virtuoso section, starting with a theme marked narrante (?as if telling a story").  Starting quietly, the music builds up considerable rhythmic momentum until an unaccompanied violin passage, all in double stops, leads back to the opening melody.

The second-movement Scherzo (Vivacissimo) shows the author of Sarcasms at his most sarcastic.  The ?wild" Prokofiev is back, with a combination of relentless rhythmic ostinatos (repeated figures), spicy harmonies, and a level of technical difficulty bordering on the impossible.  The ?lyrical" Prokofiev then makes his return in the last movement that, contrary to expectation, is only moderately fast in tempo, and primarily melodic in its inspiration.  The introductory theme, first played by the bassoon, later returns in the brass.  The solo violin has lyrical melodies of its own.  The undiminished level of virtuosity results from Prokofiev's brilliant ways of embellishing those melodies, and from using the instrument's highest register where, as every violin student knows, it is hardest to play in tune.  At the climactic moment, there is a quite audible scene change-the effect is as if an inner curtain had suddenly risen on the stage-and we are back to the Romantic starting point of the concerto:  the opening melody in an iridescent setting very close to the one that ended the first movement.

Prokofiev's ?lyrical" and ?sarcastic" voices are easily distinguishable throughout the concerto.  The composer himself, discussing his own style in his autobiography written late in life, identified no fewer than four distinct strands.  In addition to the lyrical side, he mentioned the ?innovative," which more or less covers what the world has perceived as ?wild," ?barbaric," or ?sarcastic."  In addition, the composer listed the ?toccata-like" character, which involves driving motoric rhythms, and the ?classical," as developed most perfectly in the Classical Symphony.  It is not hard to discern all four strands in the First Violin Concerto.  The ways of writing introduced here would echo through Prokofiev's works for years to come-not least in the Second Violin Concerto, written twenty years later.