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Music Review: Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 in G Minor

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Prokofiev's adaption of the Soviet position on the arts:

The balance between individual creativity and society.

This article will analyze Sergei Prokofiev's (1891-1953) Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 in G Minor focusing on the influences to music from the perspective of the individual and society.

The objective is to explore the elements of what Lewis Rowell calls "new music." Lewis Rowell's book, Thinking About Music, discusses two characteristics of new music (early 20th Century) that are descriptive of Prokofiev's music; that of being atonal, and resident in the "teleological world of linear time” (Rowell, 245).[1] Prokofiev's second Violin Concerto contains segments that provide examples of atonal music. These segments avoid the previously traditional tonal structures, yet still achieving unity of its parts. This concerto may be representative of a sequence of events with a teleological purpose. Rowell points out that Prokofiev was one of many composers that used this model in his compositions (Rowell, 245-6).[1] Rowell also discusses the influence of the Putonic mind set on the values assigned to music.

Note: You will find a video performance of Sergei Prokofiev's (1891-1953) Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 in G Minor at the end of this article.

Soviet Philosophy.

The growing soviet philosophy of the early 1900s was that the primary function in the arts was to support the philosophy of the State. "The promotion of music as an instrument of state policy has been and remains one of the major issues in the philosophy of music, raising important questions of authority, free will, and meaning” (Rowell, 213).[1] Rowell states that, "The politicizing of music in the twentieth century is usually explained as a reaction against the "art-for-art's-sake" movement popular in the previous century, a movement whose main premise was that the artist's only obligation was to art itself. The opposing view is that the purpose of art is to reflect, affirm, and promote the highest ideas of society." In this view, art that is "remote or divorced from the society that nurtured it degenerates into mere formalism, the Soviet code word for bad art” (Rowell. 213).[1]

The Soviet view on music as an art, was that it (music) should reflect and influence the public’s view towards that of the State view, and its desired social environment; not a reflection of the artist or composer. In the early years of the 20th Century, Socialist Realism was established, from art, music, philosophy, literature even the interpretation and critique of history must support and mirror the views of the Soviet State. Boris Asafiev created a theory of intonation as the means to implement Soviet Realism in music. As stated by Asafiev, Soviet Realism demanded Soviet composers to write music with intonations that supported the “ideological significance of Russian nationalism and of Soviet (sense) of reality.” (Rowell, 214)[1] It is this ability to balance Sergei’s on sense of originality with that of the philosophies of the State that endeared him with the Soviet Government authorities, without corrupting his own creativity.

Sketch of Sergei Prokofiev by Hilda Wiener

For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave the life story of Prokofiev to the reader’s own research via websites like Wikipedia. I do not wish to spend too much time on the easily acquired information. I’ll only briefly comment on the latter half of his life as it impacts the subject composition of this article.

Critics.

During World War I, Prokofiev remained in St. Petersburg, studying and writing music. The symphony "Classical" was written during this period. After World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution began and once again Prokofiev went abroad. Prokofiev came to America where initially he found a fairly warm welcome by the public. The press, however, were very critical of him and his work. Eventually, his tour in America fell apart. Sergei's next move was to Germany and new work on an Opera called The Fiery Angel. The time he spent overseas was not favorable to his career. Several of Sergei's works created during this time did not fare well.

In 1935, Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union with the intent to reestablish his roots and his own culture. He reestablished his standing as a premier Russian composer and also became a pioneer in creating music for the cinema. Prokofiev's work during this period of his life was very politically correct towards the Soviet philosophy of the arts. He found within himself a way to maintain his creative and originality while satisfying his cultural requirements. For his work, Prokofiev received many awards and prizes by the Communist Party. Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953, within minutes of the death of Stalin (Robinson, 573).[2]

The Composition.

Prokofiev completed hisViolin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 in 1935. This concerto consists of three movements:  Allegro moderato, Andante assai, and Allegro, Ben marcato.

  1. First Movement: The Second Concerto begins with a simple and soft violin solo. Slowly instruments are added creating a deep filling sound as if establishing the ground floor of this piece and setting the initial tone and emphasis on the qualities of the instrument. Then, an almost awkward melody jumps into the picture building the mystery. The beginning is in G minor and ends in G major. In Soviet music, a progression between minor and major notes was a standard method to intimate the optimism of a Soviet society.
  2. The second movement also begins with a pleasant and tender violin solo, supported by additional instruments playing an almost staccato supporting melody. Then it evolves into a temporary moment of tension, only to return to another tender melody. The second movement switches back and forth from tender melody to moments of tension and the mysterious melodic tone. The long drawn-out melody of the Andante assai, which here and there plays off the slight rhythmic jolt of 4/4 time against the accompaniment 12/8, has long been recognized as one of Prokofiev's most grand melodic declaration. The ending is very anticlimactic, sounding as if the performers executed their last dying breath through the instruments.
  3. The third movement is very lively and dance-like. It is still rather more lyrical than virtuosic or transcending, though the various sections of its rondo shape have plenty of energy. The final movement of the concerto is prickly and jarring, particularly in its sudden and unexpected ending: gone is the lyricism of the first movement, where themes in minor and major are contrasted.

Description.

Prokofiev's concerto sounds and feels like there are several continual streams of dramatic segments, loosely tied together, as if watching a black and white movie that is transitioning from chase scenes, escapes scenes, mysterious moments, moments of resolution, moments of compassion and romance. Only one continuous theme exists in this concerto. That is a theme of drama wrapped around these three movements. This may be a drama representing the chronological events in those earlier years of the (then) Soviet Union, and possible in contrast or reflection of Prokofiev's own life.

Sergei Prokofiev's life and music were intimately connected with events and movements of his time. His work was considered to be original even at an early age. But it was in his later years that he balanced and merged his originality, with that of the philosophies of the State, endearing himself to the Soviet Government, without corrupting his own creativity. The Second Concerto was Prokofiev's last commission in the West, composed just before he moved to Moscow for good. This Concerto may have been the beginning of Prokofiev's process of adapting to the needs and demands of official Soviet position on the arts: the balance between individual creativity to the society's political standards.

Final note:  This analysis is based on Anne Akiko Meyers excellent performance of Prokofiev's Violin Concertos and Five Melodies with Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt conducted by Dmitri Kitaenko.  It can be found on Compact Disk published by BMG Entertainment.

Sergei Prokofiev's (1891-1953) Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 in G Minor

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Bibliography

  1. Lewis Eugene Rowell Thinking About Music. Amhurst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.
  2. Harlow Loomis Robinson Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography. New York: Viking, 1987.

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