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Sergey Prokofiev. VIOLIN SONATAS


Text of the booklet "Sergey Prokofiev. VIOLIN SONATAS"

Mikhail Tsinman interviewed by Michael Serebryanyi

-You treat these four sonatas as a single cycle. What is the nature of its unity, and why did you decide against ordering them chronologically in the album?

For musical reasons. The Sonata for solo violin is an introduction, followed by the powerfully tragic Sonata in F minor; next comes an intermezzo, the Double sonata, and the brilliant finale, Sonata in D major. Thus, the cycle has a general key, D major, and the contrast between its parts is very expressive. Each of the four sonatas has something in common, in images or intonations, with Prokofiev’s defining works in the genre of musical theatre. A stylistic change connected to the insight into the principal ethical task of creative work is the ballet “The Prodigal Son” and the Sonata for two violins; thinking about Russia’s historic destiny is manifested in “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible”, in the operas “Semyon Kotko”, “War and Peace” and the epic First sonata; “Cinderella” and the Second sonata evoke fairy tales, and, finally, a number of “Soviet” pieces written on commission, which may include the Sonata for solo violin.
-Prokofiev only turned to the genre of violin sonata in the 1930s…

Yes, that was the time of maturity and wholeness, and the four violin sonatas form a complete world, swathed in its flowering diversity. Prokofiev once wrote in his diary: “Talent is a God’s gift; does the bearer of this gift also bear more responsibility before God?” This question contains the impulse to understand the sacrament of the gift, to find the source of primal intuition that had been developing inside him, defining the continuity of his whole artistic career. This studied attitude to the artistic gift was saving Prokofiev from egocentric delusions, because of through me, but not mine or, as he put it in his diary, “art is individual, but not personal”. Prokofiev’s gift is full of light and joy. Truffaldino from “The Love for Three Oranges” throws out the “Martellian verses” which were poisoning the Prince with a spirit of gloom. This is an image indicating the change of artistic eras. The poet Velemir Khlebnikov once wrote: “We’re a race of ray-men”. Prokofiev had been one since his childhood experi-ments. Sun is the very first symbol of his gift. He was even born in the rural Sontsovka (solntse is Russian for ‘sun’). The critics called him a ‘sunny composer’. “What do you think about the Sun?” – this was a question posed by Prokofiev to his friends in his album, the famous “Wooden book”. “The rich man of the sun”, “the solar-eyed Prokofiev”, used to say the poet Konstantin Balmont.

-Do you think Prokofiev just removed gloomy things from his world-view?

Of course not. This solarity drew him to very diverse paths. “The Love for Three Oranges” comes to mind again; the opera was either programmatic or prophetic for its author. The Prince goes around with the oranges, cuts up one, then another, until he finds what he calls ‘my love, my orange’. Thus Prokofiev follows the metamorphoses of ‘primal intuition’.
One such metamorphosis is the pagan flame. The first tempest of enthusiasm and indignation concerning Prokofiev’s music broke out after the performance of “The Scythian Suite” with its final ‘Cortège of the Sun’. The paganism of “The Scythian Suite” is somewhat stylized in the Mir iskusstva manner, but in the Chaldean cantata “Seven, They Are Seven” Prokofiev is probing the paganism’s inner depths. “They say that I managed to express the deepest fear in this cantata. But… there should be no fear”.
Another thread is the dark flame of a passionate soul, the razor-thin threshold beyond which lies the abyss of the chaos; this thread passes through “The Gambler” and culminates in “The Fiery Angel” (“I was just eight when he first appeared, in a ray of sun”, Renata sings). Reworking these two operas, Prokofiev wrote down: “Both ‘The Gambler’ and ‘The Angel’ belong to a period I have since left behind. I’ll dutifully brush them up, and then I’ll leave that dark world… for a light-filled symphony, and then, maybe, for even grander ideas!”
One such idea was the ballet “The Prodigal Son”, written in 1928 on commission from Diaghilev. The composer’s diary reflected the writing of the score. “One cannot work if one does not feel pure enough”. He writes down Diaghilev’s words about the music of the ballet’s closing scene (the return of the son): “It should be simpler, kinder, more tender”. And then: “In the evening, falling asleep, I was still looking for a new theme, a pure and clear one, and thinking that the theme which illustrates a Gospel parable should come from above. At about 1 a. m. I got up and wrote down two bars. In the morning, I worked, building up from the same train of thought as the night before. The theme came out quite marvellously”.
I think here ‘the primal intuition’ found its way at last. The music of “The Prodigal Son” is the beginning of a stylistic change, whose grand results will have matured in Russia. Ever since this time, the idea of eternal blessed existence is central for Prokofiev’s art.

-There is much evidence about the influence of Christian Science on Prokofiev. Could someone of such stature rely on this doctrine as the only internal support?

Yes, it’s strange that someone so alive could have embraced such an artificial American creation! Maybe it was Prokofiev’s tendency to diligently construct the relationship with the outer world and with himself – after all, this doctrine puts a premium on auto-training and self-education; also, during his émigré years, he was cut off from his roots. The Christian Science idea about the unreality of evil, of evil being an aberration of human free will, was also close to Prokofiev’s heart, and was vividly represented in his music. In spite of Christian Science recommendations not to dwell on this subject at all, Prokofiev kept returning in his diary to the problem of the origin of evil, one of the most important problems for a Russian mind. The idea of the unreality of the material world, typical for Christian Science, was, it seems, quite alien to Prokofiev. In this respect, he’s close to Orthodox Christianity, which he had abandoned (typically for an intellectual of his generation), but which, nevertheless, was something he felt deeply inside him, because all of Russian culture is imbued with it. The intense feeling of beauty of creation and life’s genuine nature permeates all of his music, as well as the pages of his diary. “Went to the pictures to see a Russian movie. Many pleasant and dear things, especially the rolling field of rye. Should we go to Russia or not?”

-You think the Sonata for two violins is somehow connected with “The Prodigal Son”…

After “The Prodigal Son” he wrote a stretch of small pieces, sonatinas, children’s music (he said at the time that he had finally reached complete childishness). The laconic Double sonata fits this pattern. Its first theme comes down from the heights like some ideal principle, and, reaching the lower register (“the material”), stumbles upon a dissonance, the second G – A flat. An error! (Speaking of evil.) The sonata was written in 1932 for Paris, but its first performance was in Moscow. I think that was one of the milestones on the road from “The Prodigal Son” to Prokofiev’s own return to Russia. And the Russian theme of the Sonata’s finale is perceived as something idealistically native, enticing as that field of rye…
Prokofiev had finally returned in 1936. Did his attitude towards the problem of evil change after he had fully experienced its force during those horrible years?
It is strongly felt in Sonata No.1. Just like the Sonata for two violins, it opens with a descendent movement, and the violin enters intoning the same two sounds, G – A flat, but what a difference between the two! Weightless and ethereal there, while here – unthinkable, unbearable heaviness.

-Prokofiev took a very long time writing it…

The dates bracketing the time of writing of the Sonata are as moving as a precise and powerful epigraph: 1938–1946. Prokofiev used to say that the rustling passages at the end of the first motion were ‘the wind above the graves’. One is reminded of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata. (The pianist Maria Yudina once said that for a 19th-century person “the wind on the cemetery” was a symbol of extreme loneliness, while for us having the graves of our near and dear is a consolation in itself.) We’ll hear this episode again in the Sonata’s finale. But it’s not the end yet. A few more bars usher in the miracle of ‘return’. Evil is temporary, and its force is illusory. But the pain and tragedy of life are real, they belong to the eternity and they lead the person towards its ultimate goal – returning to the blissful existence.

-While composing the Sonata No.1, Prokofiev also wrote “Cinderella” and the Sonata in D major…

That era had produced excellent fairy tale authors who fled from the lies of the officialdom to children’s literature. But with Prokofiev, the childhood theme has deep spiritual roots. The fairy tale is the story of a person perfecting in love. The Sonata in D major, brimming with freshness and richness of its themes, is very theatrical, almost plot-based. The central episode of the finale with its melodic revelation can be perceived as the internal conclusion of the whole story. The ‘young pioneer’ Sonata for the solo violin also has the element of fairy tale, only it’s a “fairy tale of Soviet life”.

-The way I see it, the Solo sonata is a full-blown parody. Mocking through clenched teeth and through tears.

I cannot agree with it. Of course, it is somewhat ironic. (For Prokofiev, I think, the distinction between genuine and non-ge-nuine was of paramount importance. Anything not reaching to God, perfecting in love and acquiring its face, loses its genuineness, becomes a mask. This ‘unrealness’ becomes a source of irony in all its guises, from a gentle joke to scathing sarcasm.) But it also has warmth, and Prokofiev’s cherished striving for simplicity. It’s closer to Osip Mandelstam’s poetry about childhood: The comet hasn’t infatuated us yet… Life goes on. Prokofiev was writing the Sonata for children, he said he could see it performed by an ensemble of violinists. This subjective genre – a solo sonata – suddenly performed by an ensemble! One can just see a line of child prodigies from Central Musical School with red scarves, and their little violins.

-But this didn’t happen. The disaster of 1948 happened instead…

It seems some symptoms of the internal crisis could be felt even before that. In 1947, he finished Symphony No.6, with its final two questions “thrown into eternity”. The questions – about what? “What is life?” – that’s what Prokofiev had said just months before the heavy blows of the winter of 1948, from which he never recovered.
And then – sun again. The deep sunset light is covering everything that Prokofiev had created during his last years. “My soul is in pain”, he said. And this soulful pain can be heard in the lamento and the last struggles of the Symphony No.7; but even they are softened and warmed by this quiet shining.

Sonata for two violins (op.56) was written in France in the summer of 1932. Composing a sonata for this rather unusual duo, the author was asking himself: Is it possible to hold the audience’s attention with ten minutes of two-part music? Satisfied with the result, Prokofiev answered in the affirmative: “In spite of the apparent limitations of such a duo, one can invent so many interesting things that the audience would listen for ten or even fifteen minutes without getting bored”. The Sonata was first performed by Samuel Dushkin and Robert Soëtens on December 16, 1932, at the opening of Le Triton, the Parisian modern chamber music society. However, the world premiere of the piece had occurred shortly before, in Moscow: on November 27, 1932, it was performed by Dmitry Tsiganov and Vasily Shirinsky.
Sonata No.1 for violin and piano (op.80) was incepted in the summer of 1938 during Prokofiev’s holiday in Teberda, Caucasus, and finished in the summer of 1946 near Moscow, at the summer house in Nikolina Gora. There, at his dacha, Prokofiev played the sonata to his first listeners, David Oistrakh and Nikolai Myaskovsky. Myaskovsky was amazed: “It’s a work of genius! Do you even understand what you’ve written?” Prokofiev dedicated the sonata to Oistrakh, who was equally moved by what he had heard. “I was never more captivated by a piece of music”, the violinist later recalled. “Before its first public performance I couldn’t play anything else or think of anything else”. Getting ready for the premiere, Oistrakh and the pianist Lev Oborin often went to the composer’s dacha to listen to his insightful suggestions. The Sonata was first performed by this brilliant duo on October 23, 1946, at the Small Hall of Moscow Conservatoire. At Prokofiev’s funeral, Oistrakh played fragments of this Sonata with Samuil Feinberg.

Sonata No.2 for violin and piano (op.94 bis) is a transcription of Sonata op.94 for flute and piano. Prokofiev worked on his Flute sonata during World War II (in 1942 and 1943), while he was an evacuee in Alma-Ata and Perm. In October 1943 he returned to Moscow, and on December 7 he heard his new opus performed by Nikolai Kharkovsky and Sviatoslav Richter. Oistrakh became very interested in this Sonata and suggested that the composer write a violin version. “It was an easy task”, Prokofiev wrote, “because the flute part turned out to be quite suitable for the violin technique as well. The changes were few and insignificant. The piano part was not changed at all”. Thanks to Oistrakh, who had first played the Sonata with Oborin on June 17, 1944, it became a staple of violin repertoire and is now best known as a sonata for the violin.

Sonata for solo violin (op.115) was written in 1947, together with pieces dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the October revolution (the cantata Flourish, Mighty Land and the symphonic poem Thirty Years); the author thought that, thanks to its major key and Russian motifs, it was in tune with the spirit of the time. The composer wanted the sonata to be played by a group of students: “I clearly see it performed in unison by young violinists, perhaps students of one of our musical schools”. Prokofiev was probably referring to an established practice: ensembles of several dozen young musicians often played solo pieces by Baroque masters during celebration galas at the Bolshoi theatre. Unfortunately, this plan was only implemented after Prokofiev’s death: on March 10, 1960, at a concert at Moscow Conservatoire, the Sonata was played in unison by students of Mark Milman’s chamber ensemble class.

Translation by Victor Sonkin


Text of the booklet "Sergey Prokofiev. VIOLIN SONATAS"


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