Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
Sergei Sergeyevitch Prokofiev was born in Sontzovka, near Ekaterinoslav in Ukraine, on April 23, 1892, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. He began sketching his Second Violin Concerto in the fall of 1934 and completed it in 1935, in response to a commission from a group of French musicians for a concert piece for their friend, the violinist Robert Soetens; it was his last non‑Soviet commission. The concerto received its first performance in Madrid on December 1 of that year with Soetens as soloist and Enrique Fernández Arbós conducting. In addition to the solo violin, the concerto is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, castanets, and strings. Duration is about 26 minutes.
After fifteen years of living in the West, Prokofiev returned to Russia in 1933 and remained there, except for brief tours, the remaining two decades of his life. His Russian tour in 1927 had been a singular success; such works as the Third Piano Concerto, the Classical Symphony, and the suite from his opera Love for Three Oranges had attracted widespread applause. Later tours in 1929 and 1932 showed him, however, that his more demanding music would not have the same enthusiastic response, and when he finally decided to return for good, it was largely out of nostalgia. Prokofiev was essentially non‑political, and his choice of settling in a state so different from what he had become used to in the West brought a difficult period of readjustment.
At first he seemed to agree that it was necessary consciously to simplify his musical style for the new and wider audiences he was facing: “In the Soviet Union music is addressed to millions of people who had formerly had little or no contact with music. It is this new mass audience that the modern Soviet composer must strive to reach.” He sought to produce works of melodic character with clear formal structures. Within a few years, though, he insisted that audiences wanted great music, not simplification. Still, the best-known works of his Soviet period—Lieutenant Kizhe, Romeo and Juliet, the Second Violin Concerto, Peter and the Wolf, and Alexander Nevsky among them—seem to confirm that view. And those works achieved a widespread popularity.
Whatever his artistic aims, Prokofiev’s works were not always accepted at once by the public or by the musicians who acted as political functionaries for the arts and dominated critical discussion of new music. Many of his late works—especially the operas—were vilified and attacked as “formalist,” the Soviet buzz‑word for music that is neither immediately accessible to a broad general audience nor suitably propagandistic. During his lifetime Soviet critics attacked his biting, grotesque humor, while western critics complained that in Russia his music lost its bite. Both views are one-sided, since parodistic and witty elements appear in many scores throughout his lifetime, and he also showed a strong lyrical gift even in his early days as a "modernist" young composer. Only after Stalin’s death and his own (the two events occurred within hours of each other) did much of the later music attain a position of honor in the composer’s homeland; within a decade of his death, the derided operas were hailed as classics.
Prokofiev worked on the Second Violin Concerto at about the same time as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. The concerto was commissioned while he was on a visit to Paris, where a group of French musicians, friends of the violinist Robert Soetens, requested a concert work for their friend with the stipulation that he was to have exclusive rights of performance for one year after the premiere. Prokofiev began composing while still in Paris, recalling in his memoirs:
As in the case of the preceding concertos, I began by searching for an original title for the piece, such as “concert sonata for violin and orchestra,” but finally returned to the simplest solution: Concerto No. 2. Nevertheless I wanted it to be altogether different from No. 1 both as to music and style.
In mid-December Prokofiev found himself in Voronezh, on the banks of the Don, at the end of a concert tour, and there he wrote down the theme that became the first subject of the second movement. During the summer of 1935 he worked in a quiet, secluded house in Polenovo, a country retreat for the staff of the Bolshoi Theater in central Russia, which proved conducive to work. There he made rapid progress on both the concerto and the ballet. Part of the concerto was also composed on tour, and he completed it in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, in August.
During the winter of 1935‑36, Prokofiev made a concert tour with Soetens, playing one of his own violin sonatas as well as works of Beethoven and Debussy. It was during this tour that the concerto received its first performance; it was successful from the very first and was popularized in this country by Jascha Heifetz, who played it frequently following his performance of the American premiere in Boston.
From the very outset, with its opening phrase for the unaccompanied solo violin, Prokofiev emphasized the cantabile qualities of the instrument. The structure of the opening movement, a straightforward sonata form, is purposely kept clear, with articulations to set off the various sections and to mark, for example, the beginning of the second theme (in the classically expected key of B-flat), a lyric descending line over murmuring strings in contrast to the ascending (but equally lyrical) line of the first theme. The long‑breathed melody of the Andante assai, which here and there plays off the slight rhythmic jolt of 4/4 time against the accompanimental 12/8, has long been recognized as one of Prokofiev’s most glorious melodic effusions. The last movement, lively and dance‑like (with castanets occasionally lending it a Spanish flavor), is still rather more lyrical than virtuosic, though the various sections of its rondo shape have plenty of vigor.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)