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In 1941, with the Luftwaffe pounding Leningrad and Moscow, the Soviet government evacuated some of its artistic crown jewels, if that imperialist metaphor may be permitted, to distant, presumably safe regions. One such was the tiny republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, nestled in the Caucasus mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian – then a prosperous agricultural and tourist center, particularly noted for its mineral springs. Today it is smack in the center of one of the world’s trouble spots, wedged as it is between Chechnya and Georgia, with the Russian giant providing a lowering backdrop, and the scene of bloody fighting in 2005.
But back to 1941: The evacuees sharing a carriage of the train, which pulled out of Moscow’s main railroad station on August 8, were leading members of the Moscow Art Theater, including its co-founder (with Constantin Stanislavsky) Vladimir Nemirichov-Danchenko and actress Olga Knipper, the aged widow of Anton Chekhov; the musicologist and teacher Pavel Lamm; and composers Nikolai Miaskovsky, Yuri Shaporin, and Sergei Prokofiev, the last-named accompanied by the poet Mira Mendelsohn, for whom he had left his wife. Prokofiev and Mendelsohn would eventually marry.
In Nalchik, the artists were befriended by the republic’s Minister of Culture, Khatu Sagidovich Temirkano and his wife (whose then three-year-old son would become the renowned conductor Yuri Temirkanov). Prokofiev writes in his autobiography: “The Minister said to us, ‘You have a gold mine of untapped folk music in this region. If you take advantage of your stay here to work up this material, you will be laying the foundation of a Kabardinian music.’ He went to his files and brought out songs collected by earlier visitors to Nalchik, including several made many years before by the composer Sergei Taneyev [1856-1915, one of Prokofiev’s teachers at the Moscow Conservatory] when he had made a study of the music of the Kabardinians and mountain Tartars. Indeed, the material proved to be fresh and original... I settled on writing a string quartet, thinking that the combination of new, untouched Oriental folk-lore with the most classical of forms, the string quartet, ought to produce interesting and unexpected results.” It was also in Nalchik that he made the first sketches for the opera War and Peace.
The peace of Kabardino-Balkaria was, however, shattered within months by the invading German army and the little expatriate community was moved south, to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where the Quartet was completed; there, too, word was received by Prokofiev that Temirkano “had joined the partisans and was killed in action during a raid on the enemy’s communications lines” (from the composer’s autobiography). Ironically, in 1944, once the invaders had been expelled, the entire Muslim minority of the republic – the Balkars, some 80,000 in number – were exiled to Central Asia by Stalin for “anti-Soviet activities,” in this case their supposed collaboration with the Germans. It may have been true to an extent, based on the maxim “any enemy of my enemy [i.e., Soviet Russia] is my friend.” They were not allowed to return until 1957.
On the occasion of the F-major Quartet’s premiere in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet in September of 1942 the critics found themselves conflicted, complaining of the score’s “barbarisms” (i.e., dissonance, hardly so to our ears) while praising the composer for his use of “authentic music of the people.”
The first movement is launched by a lively, native-sounding folk dance followed by a folksong “sung” by the first violin, the others players accompanying in mimicry of an accordion. The exposition further comprises a series of brief, syncopated phrases; a tune made up of martellato notes; and an expansively lyrical melody.
The second movement utilizes a Kabardinian love song, announced in the cello’s upper register, while its midsection quotes a folk dance, Islamey (not to be confused with Balakirev’s famous piano showpiece), in which the first violin imitates the sound of the kemange, a three-stringed, long-necked fiddle, which under different names is played throughout the Middle East.
The opening of the richly varied third movement is based on a lively mountain dance. A cello cadenza begins an agitated development which is followed by two brief lyrical interludes and, finally, a recapitulation of themes from the two preceding movements.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.