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Violin Concerto No. 2

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Xian Zhang, conductor / Gil Shaham, violin, plays Prokofiev Nov. 4 - 7, 2010
© Peter Laki

 

Upon returning to his homeland in 1935, Prokofiev wholeheartedly embraced current Soviet aesthetic norms, accepting the notion that music had to appeal to large audiences and thus contribute to the building of a better world. He radically modified his style to achieve this goal, yet he wasn't merely following an official ideology in doing so. These changes had been long in coming, at least since the First Violin Concerto and the Classical Symphony, both written in 1917, before Prokofiev's departure from Russia. Prokofiev didn't have to force himself to abandon the "wilder" manner of his long years abroad. Musicologist Richard Taruskin has claimed that "his simple style represented the real Prokofiev." According to Taruskin, the composer returned to the Soviet Union because he was hoping that "his particular genius" would be better appreciated there than in the West, where he was losing the competition with the more fashionable, more radically–modern Stravinsky. (It soon turned out that Prokofiev's return was a tragic miscalculation, although in 1935 the future still looked bright.)

For all his desire to be simple and accessible, Prokofiev took pains not to make too great concessions to popular taste. As he wrote in his 1937 article "The Flowering of Art":

In our country, music has come to belong to the masses of people. Their artistic taste, the demands they place upon art, are growing with incredible speed, and the Soviet composer must take this into account in each new work. This is something like shooting at a moving target. Only by aiming at the future, at tomorrow, will you not be left behind at the level of yesterday's demands. For this reason I consider it a mistake for a composer to strive for simplification. Any attempt to "play down" to the listener represents a subconscious underestimation of his cultural maturity and developing tastes. Such an attempt always has an element of insincerity. And music that is insincere cannot endure.

The works of Prokofiev's early Soviet period, such as the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the film score and cantata Alexander Nevsky or the Second Violin Concerto show the composer's efforts to write music of great and immediate mass appeal that at the same time avoided "simplification. "This was entirely consistent with Prokofiev's tendency to combine traditional composition with some unorthodox elements, a tendency found in his work from the beginning. The melodies of the Second Violin Concerto are based on triads like Classical melodies and often have the same symmetrical, periodic structure.But Prokofiev speaks the language of classical music with a strong 20th-century accent. The first theme, played by the unaccompanied solo violin, is a regular eight-measure phrase in 4/4 time, yet the motifs are at first arranged in groups of five, not four, beats. Similarly, the second theme is a true Romantic cantabile with a difference: from the middle of the second measure on, the theme is suddenly deflected into distant tonalities. Such abrupt key shifts had been a hallmark of Prokofiev's style since the 1910s, but in the works of the '30s they do not stand for iconoclasm and a desire to shock the audience, as they had in Prokofiev's youthful "barbarian" period. Rather, they represent that extra ingredient that keeps the composition from becoming overly "simplified."

After the first movement, an almost academically regular sonata form, comes an "Andante assai." It has a simple, long-drawn-out theme played by the solo violin, accompanied by string pizzicatos and delicate countermelodies in the woodwinds. The melody and its accompaniment become more and more excited and lead into a middle section in a faster tempo that, despite the presence of virtuosic passages, remains fundamentally lyrical in tone. The opening theme eventually returns, and the movement ends quietly.

The last movement is a traditional rondo. The main theme's most striking feature is its rhythm, a persistent long-short pattern. The episodes are dominated either by singing melodies or by irregular rhythms. As in many minor-key works from the Classical period, the end of the concerto modulates from G minor to G major; however, in this case, some ambiguities remain, for the B flats, which are part of the original G-minor scale, refuse to go away and continue to alternate with the B naturals that make the tonality major. The last sonority of the work, then, is neither major nor minor. It contains B natural but also, surprisingly, a C sharp that makes the final chord a pungently dissonant one. Prokofiev had retained something of his enfant terrible past after all.