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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Cello Sonata
Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, Op. 50
String Quartet No. 2 in F major, op. 92
Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 119
Not many contemporary composers write music which has such an unmistakable identity as that of Sergey Prokofiev. The mocking reeds, the mischievous leaps in the melody, the tart and often disjointed harmonies, the sudden fluctuation from the naive and the simple to the unexpected and the complex — these are a few of the fingerprints that can be found in most of Prokofiev's works.
Born in 1891, Prokofiev began studying music early with his mother and with Reinhold Glière and Sergey Taneyev. At five he wrote his first piano pieces, and at eight a complete opera. In 1903 he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied with Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tcherepnin, graduating with the highest of honours seven years later. In the spring of 1918, Prokofiev left the Soviet Union. It is said that when he applied for his visa, the People's Commissar of Education said to him: "You are a revolutionary in music just as we are revolutionary in life, and we ought to work together. But if you want to go, we will not stand in your way." By way of Siberia, Japan, and Honolulu, Prokofiev travelled to the United States, arriving in August 1918. He appeared as a pianist and as a composer. While there he received a commission from the Chicago Opera Company to write an opera – The Love for Three Oranges.
In 1923 Prokofiev began a ten-year residence in Paris. During this period he established his world reputation as one of the most powerful, original, and provocative composers of our time. In 1932 he returned to the Soviet Union. During the remaining 21 years of his life he composed some of his best-known music, including the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the music to the film Alexander Nevsky, the opera War and Peace, his Symphony No. 5, Opus 100, and the symphonic fairy tale Peter and the Wolf.
In 1930, Sergey Prokofiev visited the United States on an extended concert tour, one that took him not only through the major cities of the country, but also included visits to Cuba and Canada. He was extraordinarily well received, and one of the sidelights of the trip was his receipt, from the Library of Congress, of a commission to compose a string quartet. Such a commission, as Prokofiev himself noted, had a double purpose for the Library: it enabled them to present the first performance of a work by an important contemporary composer; and it gave them the manuscript for their collection. The first performance took place at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on 25 April 1931.
During his lifetime, Prokofiev did not produce much chamber music, and only wrote two string quartets. He preferred larger works and bigger sounds. When he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov he was asked to transcribe a Beethoven sonata for string quartet. "I felt the urge to score it for a full orchestra," wrote Prokofiev, "… a string quartet seemed lacking in tone-colour-possibility because we weren't able to get the maximum out of it"
"Before starting work on the String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, Opus 50," Prokofiev wrote in his autobiography, "I studied Beethoven's quartets, chiefly in railway carriages on my way from one concert to another… Perhaps this explains the somewhat 'classical' idiom of the first movement of my quartet." But, it is interesting to note, what seemed so "classical" to Prokofiev then, appears to us, over sixty years later, as almost archetypically Prokofiev in style. According to Prokofiev, the quartet has "two distinctive features, first, the finale (the most significant movement, Prokofiev believes) is the slow movement and, secondly, the key of B minor is just a half tone below the limits of the cello and viola range. This involves a number of difficulties in writing the music." After hearing the Quartet performed in Moscow on 5 October 1931 performed by the Roth String Quartet, Soviet composer Nikolay Miaskovsky (1881-1950) wrote of his friend's work in a letter to critic Boris Asafyev (1884-1949): "…The composition is completely free of effects, something quite surprising for Prokofiev… There is true profundity in the sweeping melodic line and intensity of the finale. This movement strikes deep…"
In his String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Opus 92, dating from the year 1941, which also comprises three movements, Prokofiev tried to revive and popularize the folk-music of the U.S.S.R. in that, quite consciously, he used Kabardino-Balkar themes, which he incorporated by the special harmonization of his style with the polyphonic structure of the quartet. Prokofiev spent 1941 in the town of Naichik, provincial capital of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous SSR, in the northern Caucasus, between European Russia and Turkey and between the Black and Caspian Seas. The oriental character of Kabardino-Balkar folk-music is quite evident in the Quartet No. 2, resulting from the composer's attempt to imitate oriental plucked and percussion instruments with numerous sonic effects on the four classical instruments. Thus in the second movement, which has as opening theme a Kabardin dance, there is a background accompaniment which imitates the playing of the Caucasian stringed instrument, the kjamantchi. The work was given its first performance in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet on 7 April 1942. The NBC Quartet gave the first American performance in a radio broadcast of 24 June 1945. Since then Prokofiev's Quartet No. 2 has come to be recognised as one of the finest compositions in the Soviet chamber-music repertoire.
The emphasis on melody is a clue to the musical nature of Sergey Prokofiev. It is a link between his earliest works — those written in pre-Revolutionary Russia — and his final compositions of the 1940s and 50s. For, when it comes to the handling of musical materials, the Prokofiev of the early and middle years is essentially the same as the Prokofiev of the later years. The stubborn and satiric contrasts that leap out at the listener in the Cello Sonata in C Major, Opus 119 are strikingly similar to those in the early piano sonatas. The handling of melody has undergone a change. The lyrical sections are darker and more subdued, but Prokofiev's astonishing fertility of invention makes the music seem very youthful. Melody is uppermost in the scheme of things. Sometimes it is given to the cello with just a few obliging chords by way of accompaniment, sometimes it is taken over by the piano while the soloist counters with a furious display of fireworks. At times it is disarmingly simple and tuneful; at other times it becomes complex and chromatic, with violent leaps and exciting opportunities for solo display. Composed in 1949, the Cello Sonata in C Major, Opus 119, was first performed in Moscow on 1 March 1950 by Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter. The first American performance was by Raya Garbousova in New York on 25 February 1951. The Cello Sonata is one of Prokofiev's few works for this instrument.
Victor and Marina A. Ledin
© 1994 Encore Consultants
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