Concerto No 2

in G Minor, Sergei Prokofiev

In 1935, at age 44, Prokofiev decided to end his twenty years in the west and return permanently to Moscow with his family. Prokofiev explained, “Here is how I feel about it: I care nothing for politics—I’m a composer first and last. Any government that lets me write my music in peace, publishes everything I composed before the ink is dry, and performs every note that comes from my pen is all right with me. In Europe, we all have to fish for performances, cajole conductors and theatre directors; in Russia they come to me. I can hardly keep up with the demand…” Lina, his wife at the time, arrived that year as well with their two sons Oleg and Svatislov. His view that “government would let him write whatever he wanted,” under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, was not only naïve but dangerous.

1935-36 were fateful years in Russian history vis-à-vis music. The crackdown on artistic dissent from the overarching principal of Soviet Realism, compulsory for all composers, would begin to be aggressively enforced in 1936. In 1932, Stalin had introduced his cultural policy of “Socialist Realism” stating, “The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality towards all that is heroic, bright and beautiful. This distinguishes the spiritual world of Soviet man and must be embodied in musical images full of beauty and strength. Socialist Realism demands an implacable struggle against folk-negating modernistic directions that are typical of the decay of contemporary bourgeois art, against subservience and servility towards modern bourgeois culture.” The first purge of Soviet composers would occur in 1937.

Prokofiev escaped the denunciations, at least for the moment, and he was seemingly compliant. “I believe the type of music needed is what one might call “light-serious” or “serious-light” music. It is by no means easy to find the right idiom for such music. It should be primarily melodious, and the melody should be clear and simple without, however, becoming repetitive or trivial. The same applies to the technique of form; it, too, must be clear and simple but not stereotyped. It is not the old simplicity that is needed but rather a new kind of simplicity.”  Gone was the enfant terrible of his early years, the brave pioneer, and innovator. In 1948, however, Andrei Zhdanov denounced him in a government decree (along with Shostakovich and Khachaturian) by the government for his formalist tendencies and western decadence.

For Prokofiev, the struggle between his love of his homeland and the fury of the Stalinist government was endless.  From time to time he turned out “acceptable music” such as Thirty YearsWinter Bonfire, and On Guard for Peace.  He also turned out music deemed unacceptable for which he was punished and humiliated for his formalist tendencies and western decadence. By any metric, it was dangerous to compose music under Stalin.  Prokofiev died of a stroke in 1953, the same hour, day, and year as Stalin, lucky not to have been one of the twenty million deaths during the Stalin regime.  There was not one flower at his funeral. Stalin’s funeral used every flower available. Only forty people attended his funeral.

Prokofiev was on a concert tour with the French violinist Robert Soetens while he was working on the Second Violin Concerto. “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 first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku and the premiere was given in Madrid.” This was on December 1, 1935. It was his last work before returning to Russia.

The Allegro moderato begins with the soloist’s gentle, folk-like melody (only eight bars) followed by a response from lower strings, sharing the idea but in a “distant key”. Initial serenity is truncated by typical Prokofiev brilliance, spicing the music with rapid tonal changes, imbuing the movement with distinctive colorations and energy. Shortly thereafter, a second main idea emerges, which has been described as “one of the mature Prokofiev’s most felicitous melodic revelations” (Israel Nestyev, Prokofiev.) A development features the two melodic ideas appearing, disappearing, and alternating within bright, sassy contexts. Michael Steinberg wrote, “His inventive violin writing carries him brilliantly to the end.”  The recapitulation brings both ideas back for a final bow before a muted horn and pizzicato strings bring the first movement to its close.

The Andante assai of the second movement opens with elegant pizzicato triplets, supporting a lush melody (in duple meter) from the soloist.  Prokofiev was composing his Romeo and Juliet ballet contemporaneously, and most analyses suggest that this main subject was an extension or further expression of romantic feelings.  Clarinet and flute provide a counter melody before the movement enters a section of impassioned lyrical exchanges between orchestra and violinist, sometimes cast in theme and variation format. A spectacular moment occurs when the violins are given a turn to sing the full melody with the soloist flying high with independent commentary and decoration. There is a small coda with bassoon, drums, and bass recalling the melody quietly at the end.

No holds are barred in the last movement.  The mood shifts dramatically into a bright dance-like setting, complete with castanets (probably because Prokofiev knew this would be played in Madrid). He also let loose his predilection for dramatic dissonances, heavy accents, and wildness. (In fact, he marks the very end to be played tumultuoso.) Although a rather polite second theme appears momentarily, nothing can withstand the allure of the energy and agitation with which the movement began. Winds and brass enter the fray, preparing for a particularly stunning presentation of virtuosity with the soloist furiously playing over steady drumbeats. The Second Violin Concerto ends with a veritable fiesta of fast pizzicato strings and timpani.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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