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Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Gianandrea Noseda, conductor: James Ehnes, violin, plays Prokofiev / Works by Casella & Rachmaninoff Nov. 12 - 14, 2015
© Thomas May

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was exempt from military service in the First World War thanks to his status as a widow's only son. In fact 1917, when the state of world crisis would precipitate revolution in Russia, proved to be a highly productive year creatively for the young composer. Prokofiev was looking forward to the premiere of the first of his two violin concertos when current events began suddenly impacted his career directly, and the planned concert was cancelled. He meanwhile headed off to the West for what turned out to be an exile of nearly two decades.

The Second Violin Concerto was written in 1935, around the time Prokofiev was deciding to resettle in his Russian homeland. Less than two months after the work received its premiere in Spain came a chilling denunciation by Soviet authorities of Dmitri Shostakovich, Prokofiev's younger colleague, for the "decadent" modernism allegedly infecting his otherwise remarkably successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Cast as an opinion piece in the chief Soviet newspaper Pravda, this denunciation singled out Shostakovich out as an artistic enemy of the people and implicitly gave notice that he had better watch out.

Prokofiev, too, would face similarly humiliating charges a dozen years later, in 1948, when he was one of several composers accused of writing music that was too "individualistic." So what made him come back? A lingering sense of homesickness may have blinded Prokofiev to the perils he would have to navigate as a public cultural figure in Stalin's Soviet Union. He was further disarmed by the deceptively friendly treatment Communist authorities accorded him. Prokofiev and his family were given special privileges, including a roomy Moscow apartment and even permission to hold onto a blue Ford he had shipped over from the United States. Sporting his signature yellow shoes and orange tie, he struck a dapper figure in bold contrast to his comrades' somber, drab attire. 

Each of Prokofiev's violin concertos is intriguingly linked with decisive moments in his relationship to Russia. The First, in the wake of the crisis of 1917, had to wait several years for its premiere, which introduced him to the Paris scene as an exile. While in the West, Prokofiev cultivated the image of an arrogant enfant terrible and flirted with the fashionable avant-garde as he tried to earn a living as a celebrity concert pianist.

But little by little, Prokofiev was reentering the Soviet orbit in the period leading up to the Second Violin Concerto. The work was his last commission for Western European audiences, a work tailored for French violinist Robert Soëtens, who had taken part in the premiere of his Sonata for Two Violins. Soon after, Prokofiev took the fateful leap and resettled in Moscow (landing, as Shostakovich famously put it, "like a chicken in the soup"). Still, his cosmopolitan, nomadic lifestyle of constant travel left its mark on the creation of the piece. Prokofiev composed the Second Concerto while shuttling between Paris and resort towns in the Soviet Union, and even orchestrated the work in faraway Baku; the Spanish tinge of the finale (where he uses castanets) suggests a postcard from Madrid, the city of its premiere.

Prokofiev's "rediscovery of his native land only made him lean more strongly on music of utter simplicity and directness," wrote Copland, referring to the remarkable stylistic change evident in his Russian colleague's music from this time. Initially Prokofiev had earned a reputation as an arch-ironist, flitting from suave neoclassicism to caustic sarcasm and "grotesquerie" - all the while eagerly making room for experiments with dissonant harmony. Yet even before he resettled in Moscow, Prokofiev had been grappling with the issue of how to communicate with a larger public - as opposed to addressing only a privileged elite. By 1934, he formulated a brief manifesto of his vision for a music centered on melody, with "simplicity" as its hallmark, but in which the simplicity "should not be old-fashioned; it must be a new simplicity." This soon found expression in his ballet music for Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto, which he composed side by side.

Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto tends to be regarded as more "conservative" in demeanor than the First; still, it includes some surprisingly unconventional choices. One is its opening gesture. Without any orchestral introduction, the solo violin emerges, rising up from its lowest note: a lone, melancholy voice in the desert. Adding an edge to the theme's folk-like directness are unpredictable rhythmic accents. Indeed, as the musicologist David E. Schneider remarks, aside from examples by Gershwin and English composers, this is the first concerto "to begin with a lyrical first theme after the First World War... By the end of the 1930s lyricism would come to occupy a primary position in a number of important concertos. Once again...Prokofiev was in the vanguard."

And when the orchestra does enter, initially it is with a bare minimum of color from muted strings. The palette gradually brightens, as does the overall atmosphere, to prepare the way for a second melody that represents the essence of the desired "new simplicity." Prokofiev develops both ideas with impressive rhythmic and harmonic variety, giving imaginative context to the violinist's flights of virtuosity. Still another surprise comes with the sudden snuffing out of the final measures.

The much-admired Andante assai yields another perspective on Prokofiev's deceptive simplicity. Even the well-worn compositional technique of melody set against a  patterned accompaniment sounds fresh here thanks to the delectable fairy-tale orchestration of "left-hand" triplets, over which the violin spins out its ecstatic song. The effect mixes an ironic suggestions of the mechanical age with the sweetness of a Baroque aria.

Prokofiev works something of his erstwhile "bad boy" image into the vivid finale. Suddenly dispelling the enraptured dream cast by the slow movement, he lets loose with a dance in heavily accented triple time, spiked with piquant harmonies, displaced beats, and brash colors. A shadow of menace emerges, too, from the bass drum's persistence: in this movement Prokofiev gives his percussion (curiously, minus timpani) an especially prominent role. And his dramatic coda has the soloist seem to struggle to wrest himself free of the clutches of his instrumental compadres.