Prokofiev, Sergei Prokofiev Violin Sonata No. 1 in f minor, Op. 80

October 23, 2013

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Violin Sonata No. 1 in f minor, Op. 80, 1946

Prokofiev is widely considered one of the great 20th century composers with a substantial oeuvre in most important genres dating from the first half of the century before his death in 1953. One of his greatest lifelong attractions was for opera of which he wrote at least ten, including his most successful, The Love For Three Oranges. Naturally for a Russian, Prokofiev composed at least nine ballets of which Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella achieved lasting particularly as orchestral suites. In collaboration with Eisenstein, he wrote epic film scores including Lieutenant Kijé, Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky. Typical for a Soviet Composer, Prokofiev also contributed to children's music including the beloved Peter and Wolf. Prokofiev composed seven symphonies, chamber music and numerous important works for his own instrument, the piano: five piano concertos and nine piano sonatas. Broadly speaking, his music is distinctly modern, full of dissonance, abrupt contrasts and driving motoric rhythms, often with great color, humor and verve. He consistently wrote with great melodic appeal and often within traditional forms as one of the first neo-classical composers.

Born in 1891, Prokofiev was already in his late twenties by the time of the Russian Revolution. For a variety of reasons, including a desire to find a climate suitable for his adventurous music, Prokofiev left the Soviet Union in 1918 living abroad in the United States, Germany and Paris. After nearly two decades, he returned to Russia leaving the growing instability of wartime Europe and a frustrating career despite his growing international fame. The terrors of the Stalin regime were in full force and in the years between 1946 and 1948 saw the rise of the "Zhdanov" decrees where a stifling political policy of socialist realism was used to severely censor and threaten a number of composers including Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Music was banned, concerts canceled, reputations and careers destroyed. Prokofiev's financial situation worsened along with his health and he gradually withdrew from public life, his compositional output likewise diminishing. The harsh difficulties of cultural oversight by the political state continued until the death of Stalin in 1953. Stalin and Prokofiev died on the same day and news of the composer's death was all but a footnote amidst Stalin's overwhelming cult of personality.

Prokofiev wrote two sonatas for violin and piano. He started working on the Sonata No. 1 in f minor, Op. 80 in 1938 but set it aside, finishing it nearly a decade later in 1946 after his second sonata was already published. Dedicated for the great violinist David Oistrackh who provided the impetus for its completion and performed its premiere, it is an incredible virtuoso work, more serious and dark than the second sonata (originally for flute and violin). It was apparently influenced by a Handel sonata that Prokofiev admired, and its substantial four-movement design follows the Baroque plan of slow-fast-slow-fast.

The first movement is a somber slow movement featuring a brooding, Russian-sounding melody in the piano's lower register that functions as the ground bass like a passacaglia. This plodding, suspenseful music rises to an urgent melancholy with the fiddle lamenting against heavy tolling bells in the piano's deep base. A soft, scurrying violin figuration over steady, poignant chords is described by Prokofiev as "wind in a graveyard", a haunting device that recurs at the conclusion of the finale. The second movement is a harsh and spiky Allegro brusco featuring what musicologist Arthur Cohn calls a percussive "hammering figure." A second lyrical theme injects a Russian pathos mixed with a sardonic circus parade and virtuoso parts in both instruments rise in a great crescendo of energy and sound.

The third movement offers a magical repose with long, gently flowing lines, soft trills and a muted violin in a high, ethereal register. Haunting but luminous, this limpid music is almost French in sensibility showcasing Prokofiev's gift for lyricism and liquid piano figurations. The finale brings an explosion of energy as an exuberant, triumphant theme defines a colorful rondo. Prokofiev described this movement as rhythmic complex and it surges through swiftly and constantly changing key signatures. Eventually, a strident Russian melancholy appears with a cyclic recall of motifs from the first movement and the recurrence of "wind through the graveyard." The sonata ends where it began in quiet, mournful introspection.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.