Concerto No 1

In D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 19, Sergei Prokofiev

Despite the political, military and social chaos in Russia in 1917, Prokofiev managed to have one of the most productive years of his compositional life. Aside from the First Violin Concerto (using material from a Concertino written in 1915), he produced his Classical Symphony, the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, Visions Fugitives, Cantata Seven and his Third Piano Concerto. Only one year later would find the composer on the first of his seven visits to the United States, complete with a passport which had no expiration date (the result of a clever bribe to a corrupt passport official). The premiere of Opus 19 was delayed until 1923, when political uproars had faded, and Prokofiev had resettled in Paris.

The premiere was not a good one. Composer Georges Auric, for example, called it “Mendelssohnian and derivative.” For chic Parisian audiences who wanted modern music to be avant-garde, the lyrical sweetness of this concerto seemed passe. Only one day before they had been treated to the premiere of Stravinsky’s crisp, sleek neo-classical Octet. However, violinist Joseph Szigeti was also in that audience; undeterred by critics, he was thrilled with the work, and a year later, he began touring with the concerto throughout Europe. In his Memoirs, he wrote that he liked Opus 19 because of “its mixture of fairy-tale naivete and daring savagery in a lay-out texture.” It was his endorsement which really put Opus 19 “on the map.” Other notables in that audience included Artur Rubinstein, Picasso and the prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova. Three days later, Opus 19 premiered in a violin/piano version in Moscow with Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz. “With a pianist like Horowitz, who needs an orchestra?” Milstein quipped.

There are three movements: slow, fast, slow, reversing the usual structure of fast, slow, fast. The ethereal first movement (sometimes likened to a Russian fairy tale) presents two major themes: the first marked sognando (dreaming) and the second narrante (narrating.) Herein, we find Prokofiev’s talent for intimate, tender melody in an unguarded emotional moment. His first theme was written in 1915 during his love affair with Nina Mescherskaya, the year he actually started work on the concerto, but turned away (for two years) to work on The Gambler and other works.

The first theme enters quietly over soft shuddering violins. It flies effortlessly into high and low registers, steadily gaining passion. The second theme contrasts tidily with the first in standard sonata-allegro format.  In the development section, the movement gains intensity and speed. At the end of this segment, the soloist takes charge in slowing down the pace, while leading into the recapitulation which opens pianissimo. The music ends quietly with the violin in the stratosphere, emphasizing the “fairy-like atmosphere” which had beguiled Szegeti. There is no cadenza.

A scherzo offers bright, immediate contrast in the second movement with breathtaking pyrotechnics and a bit of humor in its saucy march, which occupies the center section. Sul ponticello passages, left hand pizzicati, glissandi and harmonics add color to the consistent virtuosic display. Soloist and orchestra are tightly knit in fast dramatic exuberance during sections one and three.

Prokofiev’s last movement, moderato, returns to the serene pace of the first.  It opens with a bouncing bassoon tune, building a platform for solo violin now entering sweetly as in the first movement. Passion and intensity increase steadily as the soloist gains energy, and when the orchestra, from time to time, is invited to offer background surges. Special orchestral coloration is also added by a relatively significant part for the tuba, which had also made an appearance in the previous movement. Midway through this section, the soloist repeatedly launches dazzling, brilliant passaggi which soar and land in the high registers. At the close we find the soloist wistfully declaiming the opening subject, now decorated with swirling trills on each note, bringing the concerto to an evanescent conclusion.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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