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Sergei Prokofiev left the Soviet Union in 1918 at age 26, shortly after the start of the Revolution, without even having been given a push, figuring that his career as pianist and composer would flourish away from the chaos of his homeland. He was right, but several years of wandering ensued before he settled, more or less permanently, in Paris in 1922. There he was as much reviled as celebrated for his dissonant, bad-boy music and his percussive pianism as during his recent tours of the U.S. and Germany – but now he was among colleagues (including expat Russians) in what was then the center of the artistic universe.
The Paris of the ’20s saw the creation of his Second Symphony, the Pas d’acier ballet, and the completion of two operas, The Fiery Angel and The Gambler; followed in the early ’30s by the First String Quartet, the present Sonata for Two Violins, and the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the last-named signaling that the characteristic vein of musical sarcasm-cum-flying-fingers was running dry. Thoughts of a permanent return to the Motherland were surfacing. Various factors played parts in these musings: separation from two of his closest musical allies, recently deceased super-impresario Serge Diaghilev and the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who was increasingly devoting his time to the United States and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and a heartening visit to the Soviet Union in 1933, on which occasion he composed the Lt. Kijé music before returning to Paris. There were vague plans for a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory, which came to naught. But news suggesting a bright future for himself and his young family came in the form of an edict by Stalin ordering the reining in of Russia’s splintered artistic life, with its rival coteries, and setting up the Union of Composers, among other such “unions” for writers and for visual artists, all to work harmoniously, so to speak, within their given disciplines without official interference. It all looked good on paper, with no hint that the government would eventually control these unions with an iron fist. At any rate, the Prokofievs returned “home” for good in 1936.
In 1932, during a working vacation near St. Tropez, Prokofiev fulfilled a commission for a two-violin sonata to conclude the inaugural concert of Triton, a Paris-based society dedicated to presenting new chamber music. The performers of the premiere of the Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56, were the Frenchman Robert Soetens – for whom Prokofiev would write his Second Violin Concerto in 1935 – and the American Samuel Dushkin, for whom only months earlier Stravinsky had written his Violin Concerto.
Triton was beaten to the punch, however – by three weeks – when the Sonata was played, with the composer’s permission, in Moscow by Dmitri Tziganov and Vassily Shirinsky, the violinists of the Beethoven String Quartet, later to become closely associated with Shostakovich. How Triton responded to having only the “Western premiere” is not a matter of record.
In his 1941 Autobiography, the composer wrote of the Sonata: “Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas... After once hearing an unsuccessful piece [unspecified] for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes... [My] Sonata was presented at the official opening of Triton, which chanced to coincide with the premiere of my ballet On the Dnieper. Fortunately the ballet began half an hour after the end of the concert, and so immediately after the Sonata we dashed over to the Grand Opéra – musicians, critics, composer all together.”
The four-movement Sonata is laid out along the lines of the Baroque sonata da chiesa, with its slow-fast-slow-fast sequence. The brief, high-lying, and intensely chromatic opening movement is darkly, Slavically lyrical. The fast second movement opens with the kind of raw, loud chords that suggest Prokofiev’s “music of iron and steel” of the preceding decade, with showy left-hand pizzicatos among its dramatic elements. The third movement, where mutes are optional, is marked “tender and simple” and characterized by frequent double-stopping. The finale opens with a sprightly tune that will return several times, rondo-fashion. Toward the end the first violin, frenetically accompanied by the second, recalls the opening melody of the first movement. This rare and attractive work concludes with a fast, blazing coda.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.