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"The February Revolution took me by surprise in Petrograd. Like those circles in which I moved, I welcomed it joyfully," wrote Prokofiev in his autobiography. However "joyful" his response, the relatively apolitical modernist left the Soviet Union in the spring of 1918 prepared to make his mark on the American musical scene. (Disappointment was swift - "I had come here too soon: the child was not old enough to appreciate new music" - and in less than two years he left for Paris.) Devotion to the cause of "new music" put him at odds initially with a request from the New York émigré ensemble Zimro to write a piece on traditional Jewish melodies. His musical interest was piqued, however, by the notebook of melodies Zimro provided; the piece took shape quickly and was premiered in January of 1920.
There are two main ideas: one more rhythmic, one more lyrical. The first is introduced by the clarinet over a kind of accompanying vamp. While the clarinet is an obvious imitation of the klezmer sound, Prokofiev's writing for the string quartet and piano skillfully suggests a traditional Jewish ensemble, not just in timbre but in the physical gestures and vocal inflections. The melody unwinds in a kind of loose improvisatory style, gathering momentum, as if at a folk celebration (or as the composer did while looking over the notebook of themes?). As it yields to the second, more rhapsodic, section, the clarinet falls back into the embrace of the larger ensemble. The two ideas are woven together, but the clarinet and its theme return to center stage for a final flourish.
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.