Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op. 63

Allegro moderato
Andante assai
Allegro, ben marcato

Duration: 26'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO performed: 2013

In 1918, as the revolution reached its climax, Prokofiev decided that for the sake of his family’s safety they must leave Russia. The departure was intended to be temporary, until things calmed down again.  In fact it was to be 18 years until he returned permanently to his homeland.  Basing himself in Paris, he lived a semi-itinerant life, constantly traveling across the globe on concert tours.

In the newly established Soviet Union, meanwhile, the arts became an important focus for the new regime. Artists, writers and musicians were now expected to produce work that reflected the revolutionary ideals of the Communist Party.  In the early 20s this actually led to a flourishing avant-garde, as the part encouraged work that would show the new Russia as a modern, forward thinking country.  After the death of Lenin in 1924 however, Stalin took control of the party.  Stalin was a man of conservative taste, and so as he tightened his grip on the reins of power the state began to exert a more overt influence on its artists. By the 1930s the cult of the Leader was developing rapidly, and the regime began to look more inwardly.  The aim of global revolution was rejected in favour of the idea of "Socialism in One Country."   What was wanted in music now was not bourgeois innovations, but simple, optimistic tunes such as might be sung by the workers on the collective farms that were springing up as part of Stalin's series of Five Year Plans.

When he left in 1918, Prokofiev was a certified enfant terrible of Russian music, but as his extended sojourn in the west continued he became more preoccupied with a simpler, more melodic and direct style of music than he had hitherto composed.  It seemed therefore that the conditions in Soviet culture were becoming more suited to his art, and vice versa.  Moreover, Prokofiev was homesick, and longed to return to Russia.  This overwhelming desire perhaps blinded him to the true situation in his homeland.

In 1934, Prokofiev returned to Russia for the first time since the revolution for a concert tour.  Some of his more complex works were less well received by the authorities, but he felt nevertheless a rapprochement between himself and his country.  He even gave an interview to the journal Izvestiya in which he expounded on his idea that a “new simplicity” was needed in music. His growing links to his homeland were strengthened when a long cherished project, a ballet on Romeo and Juliet, was taken on by the Bolshoi ballet.  Prokofiev made arrangements to stay on the Bolshoi Theatre Estate while writing the ballet.  Having made this decision, he took the further step: he and his family would return to Russia permanently.  Prospects seemed better than America, where  his popularity was waning, and he received assurances that his international travels would not be curtailed (promises which turned out to be worthless).

The Second Violin Concerto was composed in 1935, as Prokofiev made these life-changing decisions.  It  is generally held up as an example of Prokofiev’s “new simplicity”, but it is rather more complicated than that.  It is true that there is a surface straightforwardness to its folk-like themes and clean orchestration.  But ambiguities abound: the initial theme is lopsided in its phrasing and the music constantly strays from its ostensible simplicity into more tense moods.  The middle movement presents the facade of a sweet cantilena, but the lyricism is  interrupted by nervier passages. The finale’s Spanish-tinged dance, complete with castanets, is undercut by irregular rhythms that suggest an unease behind the dance.

It was composed for the violinist Robert Soetens, who had championed Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins.  Prokofiev’s initial conception was modest. In May 1935 writing to Soetens he referred to “sketches for the concertino”, but the work he completed in the summer was altogether more substantial.  Prokofiev remarked, "The number of places in which I wrote the Concerto shows the kind of nomadic concert-tour life I led then. The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the 2nd movement at Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku and the premiere was given in Madrid."

The Madrid premiere was given on 1 December 1935, after which Prokofiev embarked on a whirlwind tour of North Africa with Soetens.  From there, he wrote to a friend, his next objective was “to join Mrs Prokofiev in Moscow for New Year’s Eve.”  In January 1936 the final preparations were made for this family to move permanently to Russia, and Prokofiev embarked on yet another international tour.  He was therefore unaware of the storm that broke on 28th on January, when an article titled “Chaos instead of Music” appeared in Pravda condemning his compatriot Shostakovich.  This was the opening salvo in a protracted war on the arts in the Soviet Union that would form part of Stalin’s Great Terror.  Prokofiev initially managed to keep some of his privileges, but after he returned from a tour in 1938 the door slammed shut and he was never allowed to leave Russia again.

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