Prokofiev, Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Op. 56

February 16, 2020

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Op. 56 (1932)

Sergei Prokofiev Sergei Prokofiev came of age in the 20th century and has remained both a popular and critical favorite especially as a Russian/Soviet composer along with the elder Stravinsky and the younger Shostakovich. A child prodigy, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 13 and caused a sensation with his intensely percussive piano playing with a startlingly modern rhythmic vitality that would characterize his mature work. Prokofiev launched a career as concert pianist, composer and conductor and, shortly after the revolution, left Russia for a few decades living the United States and then Paris where a combination of misfortunes including lukewarm reception and a worldwide economic depression left Prokofiev feeling unfulfilled and unappreciated. He returned to the Soviet Union in 1936 where, despite some newfound success, he would endure WWII and then the devastating state censure accusing him (along with several other composers) of “degenerate formalism.” Most agree that the latter cowed Prokofiev, dampening his creative spirit and sharply compromising his achievements as a composer during his final years. Despite all this, Prokofiev excelled as a freshly original composer with a substantial oeuvre comprising operas, ballets, symphonies, concerti, film scores, a brilliant cycle of piano sonatas and his enduring classic for children, “Peter and the Wolf.” Chamber Music occupies a relative small part of his work but includes a number of fine and characteristically distinctive works.

Prokofiev commented on the origin of his Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56 in his autobiography writing, humorously and insightfully, that:

Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas . . . After once hearing an unsuccessful piece for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes.

There is another compelling quote frequently attributed to Prokofiev: “There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C Major.” Indeed, the 1932 sonata is written in C Major and lasts, on average, close to fifteen minutes. Four relatively short movements establish a “slow-fast-slow-fast” program that many have likened to the Baroque trio sonata, perhaps a conscious aspect of Prokofiev’s design reflecting his status as a founder of early 20th Century Neoclassicism. With in the “apparent limitations” of a violin duet, Prokofiev admirably succeeds in writing compelling and diverse music.

The first movement, moderate and “singing”, features long, supple melodic lines interwoven in gentle counterpoint. The form is a simple three-part design with each section rising to cadence as the two parts converge at the octave. The second movement is a kind of scherzo (but in a march rhythm) with harsh chords, dissonance and a bit of menace in the melody. Again, a three-part design suggests a nearly traditional scherzo-and-trio. The third movement (the second slow movement) is soft, lyrical and atmospheric. The violins are muted for a more silken tone and the texture finds the parts working more closely together, often as melody and accompaniment. The swift and lively finale brilliantly showcases Prokofiev’s neoclassical spirit with a rondo almost as if Haydn were writing in the modern era. An eminently classical theme recurs with variations that progressively add dissonance and “distortion” with witty play and irony as each of the violins alternate in taking the lead. Intervening episodes offer contrast and the last reprises the long, supple melody from the first movement before the final rondo refrain.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.